21 December, 2012

This Is Your Last Chance

Originally posted on May 20, 2011

When will the world end?
That's the question.
And you know inquiring minds want to ...

Will it be tomorrow, as recently advertised? A friend asked me exactly what time the world was supposed to end on Saturday. I suggested the pre-rapture period would begin at noon (local time), but the complete destruction by fire would take a while - probably beginning at the International Date Line and moving west.

Or will it be December 21, 2012 - if tomorrow passes uneventfully - as others have prophesied? Sorry, I'm not buying that date either, and it doesn't matter what Rorschachian vagueries Nostradamus managed to record for posterity.

I have wondered what I would do with the knowledge the end was coming. Would it change my behavior? Actually, my musing had a slightly different twist. I had mentioned to a colleague that I wished to know ahead of time if when I did something, it was to be the last time - so that I could savor it more. The colleague indicated a preference for not knowing because knowing would create too much pressure and thereby interfere with the ability to enjoy whatever it was.

Hmph. Is a puzzlement! - as Yul Brynner would say. It's not really a bucket list of all those things you wanted to do at least once before you died, but it's not really the reverse of that either. We'll have to come up with our own name for this last time list. I'm open to suggestions.

If it were to be my last glass of wine, the last time to see someone I loved, the last visit to my hometown or Italy or Scotland or Charlottesville, my last kiss or sexual encounter, my last cheeseburger, or whatever - you get the idea - would I want to know? Would you want to know? Would it depend on which particular last it was - some things yes, some things no. There's where you need our heretofore unnamed list, I guess.

I seem to be arriving at the "want to know" conclusion. Consider the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence in which a highly advanced robotic boy longs to become "real" so that he can regain the love of his human mother. When it finally happens, she can be there for only one day, and he knows that. He has a wonderful day anyway, but he was a child and perhaps not sensitive to all of the consequences of knowing.

Far more realistic and certainly more powerful was the story of Professor Randy Pausch who delivered his last lecture, Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, just one month after learning his pancreatic cancer was terminal. His lecture was similar to those in which great minds are asked to think deeply about what's important to them and then deliver a hypothetical last lecture.

"What wisdom would you try to impart to the world if you knew it was your last chance?" His lecture is profoundly moving. If you've not read it or viewed it, please do. My point though is he knew it was to be his last, and that allowed him to make it special.

I think I would want that opportunity. The reality, of course, is we are very unlikely to have the requisite foreknowledge, and therefore, it doesn't really matter. We have all, however, had those experiences where "you wish you had known" because you would have done something differently. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

What would you want? To know or not to know?