If It Were the Last
By Jane Tawel
March 26, 2020
About a year ago, before this “WHOLE THING”, you know, before the pandemic that shook the foundations of everyone’s world, I started giving myself little talks about how I should live if this “were the last”. As an old-school grammarian, I find it best to use the combo of “IF- WERE”, as good grammar used to have it, because using the subjunctive form ie the hypothetical philosophy of projecting things onto the future of my dreams, desires, or hypotheses suites my worldview best. And I think especially this idea of using the plural form of a verb implies that this is just a hypothesis – IF – and not a done deal. There could be many things that happen in the future, IF. But I digress…
I belong to a particular group of worldview enthusiasts who have this idea that we should live each day as if it could be the last day. Well, yes, and no. This “as if it could be your last day on earth” doesn’t really mean you take unacceptable risks with your life or anyone else’s. It also doesn’t mean you waste all your money on a frivolous pursuit or go skydiving if you really hate the idea of falling from any height at all, especially with only an oversized handkerchief inflating above you – hopefully. But there are many, many good attitudes one can adopt towards oneself and towards others, if we really live as if the end of the, or at least our world could come at any time. Living as if it could all be taken from us “like a thief in the night”, as the wise Teacher said, has many advantages. And doesn’t it seem, really as if this latest thing, this corona virus, has snuck-up on us suddenly and caught us completely unaware with our moral, ecological pants down and our treasures stored away with Wall Street con artists rather than in things that really might last and stand the test of eternity? Just like a thief in the night, this virus has robbed us of what we were literally banking on and figuratively secure in. Our treasure ended up being stored in plain sight and rather useless and flimsily secured against the thief. Indeed, it seems to make a bit more sense now to meditate on the truth that where our treasure it, there our heart is also.
What I have done over the past year, though is more in the practical arena than the philosophical. I have tried to live a more aware and caring life in relationship to the planet I love, and the home I inhabit and love, because long before the virus, I began to realize that I am responsible for how I live my life, my day. And if I lived my day as if something could be the last of something, then maybe the naysayers are right, and while I wouldn’t exactly save the planet, — I could possibly save my soul. And who knows, maybe just one person or a few persons, doing the right things, doing the moral things, doing the things that need to be done, will save the whole world. After all, it’s been done before.
There are a few people in the world who are connecting this horrible pandemic to the ills we have long foisted on our Mother Nature and on the Earth, but it’s hard to hear them when you are afraid you personally are going to die. But we are all going to die, aren’t we? Or did we forget that? But should we be allowed to keep ruining the planet for the people and animals and fruits and vegetables and flowers and insects who want to live after we are dead? Should that be an option for any one, no matter their age, nation, income, religion, politics, or worldview? If nothing else, this whole thing about toilet paper, should surely make some kind of dim light-bulb go on in everyone’s faulty-wired, blinking chandelier. Shouldn’t it?
So, as I said, about a year or so ago, I started doing some things as if they were the last – not everything – mea culpa, pleaseforgiveme, really I feel truly sorry and I need to apologize to the future children of the world who hopefully will have a world to inhabit. But I did start to do some things as if they were the last. And it sort of began, ironically with toilet paper.
I have a friend and long, long ago before either of us married or had kids, she told me about how her father would make her, my friend and her five siblings count the sheets of toilet paper they were allowed to take in to do their business in the bathroom. If their business was the Number 1 kind, then they got two sheets of T.P. If their business was the Number 2 kind, they got four sheets. Now, this family was rich, but the dad I guess still believed that even if you are rich, there is no need to waste either money or toilet paper. He also really believed in that old adage of “waste not, want not”. Might be how he got so rich even with that many kids. He wasn’t an environmentalist or a religious person at all — he simply thought that his family should do what he considered to be the right thing to do – for the family.
Now – aren’t you wondering if all those people out there hoarding toilet paper for some godforsaken reason or other, are at least, for God’s Sake (and I mean that, For Her Sake), making sure every one is using only enough TP to do their business? Are you a little bit wishing that everyone out there who bought up all the toilet paper will conserve it, use it wisely, not waste it – so that if there really is a shortage, they might be convinced it is in their best interests to share it with the rest of us? Aren’t you hoping that if we really have seen the last of the toilet paper, that people will conserve it and use it wisely?
The real question that I started asking myself about a year ago, and that maybe we all need to ask ourselves as we take a closer look into our own hearts is this –
What am I hoarding or wasting? And how do I stop doing it?
Isn’t is horribly strange that many of us live in nations and cultures who think nothing – NOTHING!—of hoarding or wasting? We hoard money, we waste food. We hoard space, we waste time. We hoard stuff, we waste relationships. What kind of insane, unbalanced Society? Community? Culture? Worldview does those things? Shouldn’t we have figured out a while back that any group of people who do that for long, won’t exist forever? That any species, any planet that does that for long won’t exist forever? Shouldn’t we have figured out that “like a thief in the night”, death eventually comes and all those things will one day be taken from us? And then what? Have we really become so amoral, so heartless, so short-sighted, that we really don’t care what happens to anyone else after we ourselves die?
I do believe it is important to do the BIG MATH IF’s. Those are the “If this were my last moment with this person, what would I want them to know?” or “If this were my last day at work, how would I want my coworkers to remember me?” or “If tomorrow is Judgement Day, what should I change about myself today?” Those are good ways to live, indeed, and we should all take more time to live by them, and waste less time on the things that get in the way of the BIG MATH IF’s. We need to. BUT – we also need to realize that the LITTLE MATH IF’s are actually just the yin of the yang, the flip side of the coin, the reverse view in the mirror of all those BIG IF’S. What I do with my time and money– and my metaphoric and literal toilet paper– may some days seem small potatoes to me, but it’s really at the heart of all my Big Worldview Answers to Life’s Big Questions.
When I am more aware and mindful of what I do in relationship to the small things around me, things that on a daily basis might seem small in comparison to the Big Things, then I am in fact, doing what humans are truly meant to do as beings with souls and spiritual essence. When I think about how much toilet paper I really need to go Number 1, then I am actually practicing a spiritual discipline in order to form a habit in order to create a self-sustaining worldview about how important I think a single human being is to the planet, to other people, and possibly even to Whatever, Whoever is Out There in The Universe.
Imagine?! What I do with the small things has endless significance and importance to the Big Things. This is the Butterfly Effect Theory, the small pebble in the shoe of the king or the fork in the road, the drip of water that starts a flood, or the stone that kills a giant. Or maybe the virus cell that changes the heart of the world.
This reminds me of a book I read long ago, and whose title I will riff and satirize here – Imagine – “The Unbearable Lightness of Toilet Paper”.
So now for the nitty-gritty. Here is the way I have tried to change my way of seeing my life, my things, my belief system: By asking What – If questions about The Last Days. It works for me, a strange nerdy, geeky lover of Literature and Writing and as a believer in an ancient and ever-evolving worldview that There is Something / Someone Important – more important than I, but also that makes me more important – “Out There”. Whatever you call that “More Important” thing – please find it – Whether it is your God, your loved ones, your future, your planet, your people – please find that which motivates you to be better than you were yesterday and less better than you hope to live to be tomorrow. I find asking myself these If-Then Questions helps me. I hope they do you, too.
- If this were my last roll of toilet paper, how much would I use right now to go pee?
- If this were my last loaf of bread, how much would I snarf down now and how much would I save for tomorrow or for someone else, and how much would I enjoy each bite while I eat it?
- If this were my last light-bulb, would I turn the light off when I didn’t need it? Do I need it on right now?
- If I were only allowed a few gallons of water per day to use, how long would this shower be? How would I wash my dishes? How much do my clothes really need to be cleaned? How long would I let the water run to get hot? Or cold?
How much would I enjoy drinking this glass of water, this cup of tea? How sure would I be to drink it to the dregs and not waste one drop?
- If I were only allowed to be on the computer, online, on my cell phone for one hour per day, what would I do with that time? Or if my computer or cell phone was on a timer and if it were left on for ten minutes when no one was in front of it using it, it would self-destruct, would I remember to turn it off when I walked away?
- If I had the choice to walk to the store and get all the benefits of being outside moving, to slow down and enjoy the journey, and reduce my carbon footprint just a little bit – would I do it? Don’t I often have that choice, if I’m honest? Shouldn’t I make that choice whenever and wherever I can? What if this were the last time I could use my legs, my eyes, my body to walk somewhere?
- What questions can you add? And how can you let those questions inform your choices in order to create habits in order to create character in order to live a more meaningful life?
How can we help each other, see the world differently, even after this whole pandemic has, I hope, receded into the past? I am hoping that we do remember, that though this time may pass, and this danger may recede, there is never an end to the real Human Condition. But alas, there is also never an end to the dangers to our health and our souls and the dangers to the health and the soul of our planet. Can we ensure, can we plan, can we be practical, can we be in this together, and can we try to also make sure that there is never an end to what we of faith, hope and love, and some good old practical uses and conservation of our stuff and our time — are willing to do to make all things better. Just better. Not perfect, no, but surely, truly, oh please yes — better. Here is to a renewed joy in the journey in this present age and present danger. Here is to many people grasping the “IF I’s” so that the “Then We’s” will thrive for a better brighter and healthier future for everyone – now and for our children’s children’s children.
I have long pondered the questions that Cat Stevens raised in his iconic song, “Moonshadow”. I am quite partial to my sight and being able to see the world around me and to read books with words and watch my loved one’s faces. But I confess, I often take my sight for granted for most of the day. I am wrong and wronging, sinful and sinning, and guilty and judged of taking so many, many things for granted. Let’s start with owning up, with confession to each other, and then let’s humbly help each other do better.
I had a high school friend who was born without one arm due to her mother’s taking thalidomide before anyone knew it was dangerous. Her poor mom didn’t know, she is guilty of nothing but bad luck. My own mother had an old-school doctor who didn’t believe in giving drugs for natural things like pregnant nausea so that is the reason I and my siblings lucked out. This friend learned to do many amazing things with one arm, and she could actually snap her toes really loudly – a “feat of feet” we all thought pretty cool. She had a great life, married with kids, but I won’t ever let myself think that if she had had a choice, she wouldn’t have chosen to have been born with two arms and hands. So if her mother had known about the dangers of thalidomide, there is no doubt in my mind she would never, ever, ever have taken it for what ailed her.
People, we know about the dangers of thinking that we can take whatever we want for what “ails us”. We can not plead ignorance that what we are continuing to do to the planet and to other humans is not dangerous and just as life-changing as if we lopped off all our limbs. We must stop. Change. Turn Around. Make Better Choices. We must ask ourselves the Big Questions and make all the Big People hear us when we ask them to do the Big Things. And we must ask ourselves the small questions and we small people must do all the small things, daily, “never growing weary in doing good”. And then maybe, just maybe, the children of the future will be born with all the advantages for living on this planet that children have always deserved. We must suffer the pains of first-semester nausea, now, while we give up dangerous habits and practices, and we must know that even though child-birth is painful, at the end there is the joy of healthy birth and thriving life for someone that we suddenly realize — hopefully not too late — someone — our child –that we love more than anything. Someone we would do anything for. Maybe even stop hoarding and wasting toilet paper for?
While you are stuck sheltering and maybe feeling irritable or scared today, think about all the things you have right now – at your fingertips, in your sight lines – and yes, these are real physical blessings most of us have as well as metaphors for how we should be more mindful and aware of all our gifts, joys, abilities, etc. We must ask ourselves what it would mean to have them taken from us and what it means about our responsibilities to them, and to each other.
Enjoy and Seize the Importance in what you have today, and if you are willing, enjoy your stuff as if it might all be gone tomorrow. Enjoy and Seize the Importance in the world around you today, and if you are willing, enjoy it as if you were put on the earth to take care of it wisely. Enjoy and Seize the Importance in your time today, and if you are willing, use each moment as if it could be your last. Enjoy and Seize the Importance in your people today and everyone in it, and if you are willing, treat them importantly enough, as if tomorrow you might wake up to find them gone, or they find you are gone. Enjoy and Seize the Importance in your very own life today, and if you are willing, understand solemnly, as true (and if anything is true, this is), as if someday your life will be robbed from you like a thief in the night — so ask yourself — Where shall I store my Treasure? What if this were the last day on earth?
If you like, listen to Cat Stevens while you love your life, and I hope, while you begin to use less toilet paper.
And back to good grammar, which I guess isn’t a digression after all — If It Were — the Last…… then subjunctively, hypothetically, with all the options still on the table — How Shall We Live Today? Because this is not (yet) a done deal, people. There is hope and a dream for tomorrow — IF?
Oh, I’m bein’ followed by a moonshadow, moon shadow, moonshadow
Leapin and hoppin’ on a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow
And if I ever lose my hands, lose my plough, lose my land
Oh if I ever lose my hands, Oh if I won’t have to work no more
And if I ever lose my eyes, if my colours all run dry
Yes if I ever lose my eyes, Oh if I won’t have to cry no more
Oh, I’m bein’ followed by a moonshadow, moon shadow, moonshadow
Leapin and hoppin’ on a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow
And if I ever lose my legs, I won’t moan, and I won’t beg
Yes if I ever lose my legs, Oh if I won’t have to walk no more
And if I ever lose my mouth, all my teeth, north and south
Yes if I ever lose my mouth, Oh if I won’t have to talk