“I am afraid I do not have good news for you. Your doctors think you have only few years to live” While that does not sound like a definite death sentence (after all that is just likelihood), it is not exactly the kind of thing one looks forward to hearing.
So, once you here that, what happens next? I guess that all depends.
If death is imminent, for example few weeks or a couple of months, we may be more concerned with sorting out our financial loose ends, closing open files with IRS, and making sure we do not leave a huge mess for the ones we leave behind.
If death is anticipated in 10 or 15 years, many would go though some period of emotional turmoil, then carry on with life as usual until the expected day gets closer.
But what if we were given only 2 or 4 years to live; a period of time that is not too short that we focus on financial records, but not too long that we can ignore it and engage in ‘life as usual’.
It has intrigued me, over the last 10 years or so, how people would respond to the realization of their mortality. Of course we all know one day we will die, but we rarely ever behave as if we realize that. And as I get older, I see more and more people who were forced to realize that same fact they have always known, and yet it comes to them as a surprise. And they do not all respond the same way.
I have seen people to turn towards God by indulging in rituals, and forgetting the material world and what is in it. They spend more time in their religious institutions, read their Holy books again and again and, in their own way, start their own monastic life. I have also known of people who decided to travel, have fun, buy the fancy cars their always dreamed of, and indulge in the material life they always wanted, but have always put off waiting for the right time.
I know I would be uncomfortable with either option. And even thought I believe in God, the After Life, and the Judgment Day, turning totally toward ritual-centered life does not seem the right answer to me for I never felt that rituals in excess or alone will be enough for salvation.
I personally do not think my feelings are religiously wrong from the Islamic point of view. In the Quran, Faith in God as been cited coupled with performing good deed over a hundred times. Few times (for example see 2:227 and 21:73), good deeds have mentioned as distinct from prayers and alms giving, suggesting that good deeds are distinct from core rituals of faith.
I grew up hearing a statement frequently, but falsely, attributed to Prophet Muhammad, pbuh:
“Do for this life as if you will live forever, and do for the Life After as if you will die tomorrow.”
And while this valuable advice cannot be authenticated as a saying of the Prophet, its spirit has been endorsed in several other authenticated Prophetic saying.
“If the Day of Judgment erupts while you are planting a new tree, carry on and plant it.”, the Prophet said.I imagine it is hard to stress more strongly the value of enriching life on Earth, till the last breath of our life.
Another of my favorite Prophet Muhammad saying's is this one:
“Once humans are dead, rewards for them cease except for three things: charitable endowment that out-survives them, knowledge that still benefits people after they die, and good offspring that remembers them in their prayers.With statement like these, it is hard to see over-indulgence in rituals (or material life) as a healthy response to one’s realization of their own end-of-life approaching.
The appropriate response seems to fulfill ritual requirements as per one’s belief, but then to go on and make the most of the time left to benefit other human beings.
This is not a spirit exclusive to one religion. The same goal has been in the eyesight of people from all beliefs and ideologies.
I know of a middle-aged man, having known he had only 6 months to live, he decided to use his time to write a book about a subject he cherished. He was lucky enough to complete the book before he was gone.
On a more personal level, a former colleague and a friend of mine is going through serious health issues that make the idea of end of life a daily companion. And while religion continued to be on her mind, possibly with more meditation and wisdom, she opted also to go ‘outward’ with volunteer activities. She started sharing her experience with the rest of the world by starting a blog, rich in humor as well as in memories, thoughts and roller-coaster emotions that are part of her life with a tough disease. All that goes on while she carries on with her professional career and takes care of two young children.
During a recent phone conversation she made a notable statement when we talked about what people do with their life in a situation where life may be short. “Sometimes I think [by living] I am planning my own funeral. I want a lot of people to attend my funeral, not because they have to, but because they want to be their”.
And people would want to attend your funeral when they feel that if you are gone, some important part of their life is lost; and that you impacted them, and will continue to affect how they think and live. They feel that losing you is like losing a positive force in their own life. It is not losing you that they would mourn; they are mourning the loss of part of their own future that would have made their lives richer and more meaningful.
I can tie that thought easily with the Prophetic sayings I mentioned above. And that is why more rituals and more material joys do not seem like a good response to realizing that life is short (or shorter than what we expected before). In those kinds of indulgences -- religious and material -- lives of others around you are usually minimally influence positively, if at all.
I would like to live my life knowing that when I know I am dying tomorrow, I would not feel that I need to change anything that I have planned. Only if my life is like that, I would think of it as good life. Thinking of death from that perspective can be a beautiful and a positive for in life.
So, I pray that when my Day of Judgment comes, I would be in the middle of planting a new tree.