Four hours – I think I’m going through a phase. Or maybe I’ve just reached a new stage in the development of Liminality. Last week marked the first time I linked to another web page and discussed it here—a well-established blog convention. It was kind of fun, actually, and not nearly as horrible a thing as I had made it out to be. In retrospect, I guess it was kind of silly for me to avoid a format when I’ve known all along that the content itself is what’s important. I think Liminality has grown through the experience—I think I’m starting to realize that such rules and regulations can only stifle.
Then again, the fact that the above paragraph sounds like an excuse means that I still feel a little guilty about it. Guilt or no, though, I’m going to do it again this week. Yes, I know—I’m a rebel.
So, the link for this week is the 4 hour question. The question itself is quite simple: “If you only had four hours left in your life, what would you do?” When I first read this question I immediately thought of a dream I had once. I was sitting on a grassy hill at night, looking out over the sleeping town below. There was no moon, but the sky was clear and the stars shone out like a million lanterns in the darkness. Suddenly, God spoke to me, and said, “Tomorrow, when the sun rises, you will die.” I was shocked, but I did not hesitate—I immediately ran down from the hilltop and into the town. I visited everyone I loved and told them that I loved them, forgave wrongs done to me and asked forgiveness for wrongs that I had done.
I woke the next morning with tears running down my face, and in that moment before I realized it had all been a dream my heart felt as if it was going to burst. Even after I realized it had been a dream, though, it continued to affect me profoundly. I had that dream over ten years ago, and I can still remember it as clearly as if I were dreaming it at this moment.
That dream has always reminded me of the parable in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12, where the rich man builds bigger barns to hold his crop, but then God tells him that he will die that very night and he will lose everything. The moral of this parable is not to hoard up riches for yourself and ignore God, but the circumstances remind me of my dream.
My dream, though, was very formulaic—getting to loved ones isn’t as easy as just running down from a hilltop and into the town. In fact, as far as my family is concerned, it’s just not humanly possible for me to get to them in four hours. Four hours just really isn’t that much time at all. “Why four hours?” I wondered when I first read the question. I think that having a set amount of time makes the question more concrete, and having such a short span of time makes you think really hard about what exactly you would do during that time.
It’s easy to say that I would contact my loved ones and tell them that I loved them. That was my first impulse, of course, and the reason I thought about my dream. But then I thought, “Well, I have four hours—what exactly would I do with that time?” I thought about driving out to the coast with my wife and sitting there on the shore, silently watching the waves roll in. It’s romantic, yes, and not a bad idea for a day trip, but I have four hours. It would take at least an hour to drive to the coast, and would I really want to spend a quarter of the rest of my life in a car?
And that’s the trouble, really—four hours is such a short time that any romantic notion that popped into my head immediately came under harsh scrutiny. With only four hours, you really don’t want to waste even a minute. I threw out idea after idea, each time becoming more and more simple. And when I came down to the end, when I had finally peeled away all the layers of the onion, I realized that I was indeed left with nothing. In the end, I realized that it didn’t matter what I did, it only mattered who I was with. And I would choose to be with my wife. I’m not sure what exactly we would do, but we would be together. Most likely we would just talk, or hold each other.
I realized that it doesn’t matter what you do because four hours is really not that much time to do much of anything in. The whole point, I think, is that if you haven’t been doing it your whole life, four hours is not going to be enough time to make up for everything you wish you had done. If you aren’t doing it every day of your life, when the time comes—whether you have four hours, four days, four weeks, or whatever—there is just not going to be enough time to cram everything in. I think this is the real reason for the 4 hour question, and for phrases such as carpe diem or “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Even my dream runs along these lines, and I guess that’s why I thought of it. I may not literally die tomorrow, but I never know when my time will come.
There is an idea found in literature (and life, as well) that if one dies well one may make up for a less-than-perfect life. In Macbeth (probably my favorite Shakespeare play), Malcolm reports to the king on the execution of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor by saying: “...very frankly he confess’d his treasons,/Implor’d your Highness’ pardon, and set forth/A deep repentance. Nothing in his life/Became him like the leaving it” (Act I, Scene IV, lines 5-8). In warrior cultures, facing death with calm and poise is respected, even of enemies, while groveling in fear before death is considered detestable and shameful. When Japanese samurai committed seppuku (ritual suicide), the self-inflicted disembowelment was generally not enough to kill the person (at least not right away), and so a “second” was appointed to stand by with a sword to chop off the doomed man’s head. The second watched closely, and if it looked as if the doomed man was going to cry out in pain he struck quickly to prevent the disgrace.
On the surface, all this would seem to indicate that greater importance is placed on the moment of death than on life itself (particularly in honor/shame cultures). The idea we discussed above, though (that no amount of time at death is enough to make up for a poorly led life), applies here as well. The idea was that a man died as he had lived, and in that moment of death was condensed everything that he had been in life. If a man was courageous and brave in life, he would face death the same way, but if he was a coward he would die like a coward.
In the same way, if we live our lives properly, it won’t matter how much time we have before we die. We will have lived life to the full, with no regrets. Should we live our lives poorly, though, no amount of time will be enough to make up for it. Christianity recognizes deathbed confessions, but while the confessor’s soul may enter Heaven, the confession will not heal the pain caused to others by that person during their life, and it will not make up for missed opportunities.
So, I don’t know if I’ve really answered the question, but the question has certainly made me think. If I really did only have four hours left to live, how would I feel? Would I be at peace, knowing that I lived my life well, or would I be saddened by the sudden realization that I never did all that I could or should have, and now there just wasn’t enough time?
I most likely have more than four hours left to live, and thus I still have the power to change my life and the lives of those around me. Am I living my life well? Do I treat others with love and respect? Do I seize the day, the hour, the moment? Am I making a difference in my world?
I once heard a recording of a cell phone call made by a girl who discovered that she had not four hours, but four minutes to live. She was a passenger on the Daegu subway when the train caught fire in February, and her last phone call was to her mother. She told her mother how the smoke was filling up the car and the doors wouldn’t open, while her mother just kept calling her name, crying. When it became apparent to the girl that she wasn’t going to escape, she said, “Mom, I love you,” and then the call ended. I heard this played on the news and I cried as I listened. Eight months later, I am crying as I type this.
The sudden death of a loved one is traumatic, and sadness is unavoidable. But regret is, by nature, avoidable—we feel regret because we know we could have done things differently. If I had been on that train, and that call had been to my wife, I know that I would have felt regret. I know that a million little things I could have done differently would have passed through my mind.
Human beings have a tendency to think they are invincible—accidents always happen to someone else. We think that we have years and years still ahead of us, so what’s the rush? There will always be time to do the things we wanted to do, say the things we wanted to say, love the people we wanted to love. But how different would our lives be if we lived with a constant awareness of our own mortality—how different would my life be? I must admit that my life would probably be quite different. I would love more, hate less, take more time to appreciate the world, spend less time being angry at people, and not worry nearly as much about changing others as I would about changing myself.
That’s all well and good, to say, I suppose—a nice philosophical exercise. But what good is it if it ends there? Even as I write this, even as I spell out this answer to the 4 hour question that really isn’t an answer, there is a small voice in the back of my mind. “So,” it says, “what are you waiting for?” Indeed. When the time comes it will be too late to change anything. I pray that I can live my life so I can face that day with peace, not regret.