The human mind thinks in narratives. Well take in information about the world around us, and we create a story that weaves all of those narratives together in a cohesive manner. The mind creates the reality that it experiences, and it uses narrative to give the story meaning. Unfortunately, sometimes the stories don’t fit the actual world we inhabit very well.
One area where the narrative we tell ourselves doesn’t fully match the reality of our lives is with regard to our risk of dying on any given day. As our brains build the narrative of our lives and of who we are, it projects forward into the future of who we will become and the world we will inhabit. My assumption, based on the way I know that I think, is that we project forward a long life with our ending far off in the distant future. I recognize this tendency in myself all the time, and I suspect that even if I do make it to old age, this same tendency will be with me then. It is hard to imagine that my end is not always going to be far away.
The end is always near, however. Or at least, the potential and risk of the end is always near. Our brains believe that we have lots of life left, because that is how the narrative we have crafted in our minds plays out. But the real world doesn’t have to follow the narrative in our minds. The real world is separate from what we think it should be or will be, and it doesn’t much care about how we think about it or understand it (or fail to understand it either).
In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca wrote, “who is not near death? It is ready for us in all places and at all times.”
It is important to remember that the actual course of our lives could diverge from the narrative path we create at any moment on any day. The possibility of a natural disaster, a clumsy mistake, or the malice of another person resulting in our early departure from life is always greater than zero. This means that whatever narrative we create, however far off death is in the story we tell ourselves, the reality is that the end is always near.
The take-away is to make our time meaningful, to be content that we have done our best each day, so that if we die, the narrative we lived out will end with us as a confident, complete individual. This is not an excuse for a YOLO way of life, and it shouldn’t be a reason to bury ourselves in work – effectively enslaving ourselves to a job, a cause, or a relationship. Instead, what we should learn from our always near ending is that we should do our best to fully apply ourselves in a way that meaningfully engages in the world to produce more than our own selfish happiness. We should seek opportunities to live a life where we can develop a strong and fulfilling narrative that helps to lift up others who are doing the same. The end is always near, so we should make sure we have made of our life a narrative we can be proud of.