Living Like You Were Dying

Doug McManaman
October, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

I've always been a very poor auditory learner. In fact, looking back, I think this might have constituted a real but mild disability. My grade six teacher was especially aware of this, for I recall the many times he'd shout at me to "listen!", as he noticed me wandering off into space. Even today, I will hear a song on the radio played twenty or thirty times without knowing what the lyrics are actually saying. But one day this year I decided -- for some unknown reason -- to make the effort and pay close attention to a song that was being played rather frequently. The song was about death, one of my favorite topics to think and write about.

The song was Live like you were dying, by Tim McGraw. In case you missed this song because you just can't tolerate the overly repetitive nature of country music broadcasts, the song is about a man in his early forties who suddenly discovers that he is dying from what is probably an inoperable cancer. This cold meeting with the reality of his own mortality awakens him to what it really means to live in the present. Someone asks him: "How's it hit 'cha when you get that kind of news? Man what did ya do?" The Chorus answers the question: "I went skydiving, I went rocky mountain climbing, I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu. And I loved deeper, and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness I'd been denyin'. And he said some day I hope you get the chance, To live like you were dyin'".

No doubt this is a step up from your typical country music lyrics with its talk of bars with hookers, hustlers and truckers who like to drink their beer from a mason jar, etc. In contrast, this man has been awakened to the eternal after discovering that he's going to die. It seems most people only discover "life" after a tragedy that has brought them in touch with the very real prospect of their death. And if only more people could ponder life's brevity and the swift approach of the grave in order to more readily forgive those who have hurt them in their lives. Harbouring unforgiveness is very common and a very real obstacle towards emotional well-being not to mention one's salvation.

Christianity is fundamentally life through death: "...always we carry with us in our body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus, too, may be visible in our body" (2 Co 4, 10); "unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest" (Jn 12, 24); "...when we were baptised in Christ Jesus we were baptised in his death;...we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father's glory, we too might live a new life" (Rm 6, 3-4). Life in Christ is the Via Dolorosa: "Unless you take up your cross and follow me..."

And this is precisely the beauty of our life in him. We die in order to live, and we are truly alive only because we have died. Just as one cannot really become aware of oneself unless one knows something outside the self, so too, one does not really come alive until one has "lost oneself" through a dying with and in the Person of Christ.

One thing I've noticed about young people in recent years is the increasing popularity of the "cult of experience". Many of our students are sleep deprived; for they consistently turn in well after midnight. The reasons for this vary, but for some the reason for averaging only a few hours of sleep a night is that they do not want to miss out on all that life has to offer. To them, life is about accumulating as many experiences as possible. These students, though, rarely achieve the happiness they look for in cutting their hours of sleep for the sake of "more life". It's hard to convince them that life is not about acquiring myriads of experiences and that such a commitment is really a form of gluttony. Rather, life is about knowing someone, that is, him who has loved us (1 Jn 4, 10). Jesus himself has said: "And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (Jn 17, 3). Life is about learning to be loved by God, who entered death that we might have life. It is about entering into his life through the portal of his death. In tasting his death, we taste the love he has for us, because it is that love alone that penetrated and destroyed death, a love that liquidated itself on the cross.

Life cannot be about "tasting" the many and varied experiences that this world has to offer, because this world is passing away (Mt 24, 35), and like anything we taste, the experience is bound for the irretrievable past. It is by dying to this life, by entering into the Person who alone died to this life in order to resurrect it, by following him into the tomb that we find life. This is not quite living like you were dying. It is actually living because you have died.

But this song does call attention to a very important lesson about our life. You may not want to go skydiving or bull riding, but every day is an opportunity to channel the divine love to someone, and if we are lucky enough to make it to purgatory, the greatest pain in store for us will result from the complete awareness of the many opportunities we've wasted and the negative effects that our omissions have had on the lives of others. So the best we can do here is get our priorities straight and start living like we were dying, or better yet, begin dying anew in him in order to live more fully.