ONE YEAR TO LIVE: The Mindset That Motivates Towards Virtue

If you’re the kind of person who values the virtues of kindness, patience and selflessness, you probably don’t always live up to the values you claim to hold. Despite popular misconceptions to the contrary, human hearts don’t naturally embody these qualities. People are not naturally good. Unkindness, impatience and selfishness are my own natural tendencies, and I need to work at keeping these vices down while lifting timeless personal virtues up. But how? I find something that I call the “one year to live” mindset helps.

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Life on this earth is a journey, and like this boardwalk on Manitoulin Island, where I live, journeys always have an end. Remembering the finite nature of life is the first step towards growing while you’re here.

Your Time Is Extremely Limited

One of the biggest distorted perspectives in our lives has to do with time. I don’t know about you, but my tendency is to focus improperly on time in two ways. First, when I’m involved in some focussed physical task (as I am most days), my universe becomes that particular challenge. A while back I locked the keys in my son’s vehicle and I had to figure out how to open things up. It’s not unusual for me to find myself lying on the dirty, cold ground working on a car, truck or tractor. I might be climbing down off scaffolding for some maintenance or building tasks. A few summers ago I was looking for 56 head of cattle that completely disappeared into the forest without a trace. Later today I might be over at my son’s place advising him on a building project of his.

Except for the break I’ve taken to write this, my world usually involves short-term, practical, hands-on concerns. How can I get that rusty old bolt out? How will I find the precise location for a hole I need to drill in that piece of 2″ x 2″ angle iron I want to weld on to strengthen a rusted car frame? When will I find time to do the dozens of other things I need to accomplish in the next few days?

Distraction vs Reality

Thoughts about challenges like these, plus a little down time at the end of the day, makes for a life of pretty short-term thinking. Working to improve my patience, kindness and selflessness tends to be overshadowed by the practical challenges of the moment and the ongoing challenge of earning a living for my family. This is what I call short-term distraction and I suspect a lot of people live in this zone. The need to earn a living and raise a family takes up almost all my efforts and focus in short-term ways.

At the other end of the time spectrum is the idea that I’ll die someday. We all recognize this about ourselves on some level. And though I want to do all I can to live my life well and to become a better version of myself, I’ve got lots of time, right? Not necessarily.

The idea of having lots of time is dangerous because you never know for sure it’s true. Someday it won’t be true, but even if it were to remain true forever, there’s still a problem. The idea that you’ve “got lots of time” means that you can always postpone your pursuit of virtue for another day. You can do the easy thing now and let yourself be impatient in the moment. You can ignore the harder road of selflessness and choose selfishness because you’ve got lots of time to get selfless later (or maybe not bother at all). You can afford to let your bad mood show through rather than expending the effort to be cheerful. In the end, after years of “postponement thinking”, all you’ve done is fail to become a better person. Your time is gone forever and there’s no getting it back. In fact, staying the same as you are now isn’t even the biggest danger.

Over the years I’ve noticed that very few people stay the same as they age. They either get better or they get worse. I find few things sadder than a truly nasty old curmudgeon who hates everyone, hates life, is preoccupied with their own needs and wants, full of complaints, and never has anything positive to say. It’s surprisingly common, and I believe it’s the end result of a life lived with no intentional efforts towards virtue. As much as I’d like to believe that people are basically good, reality keeps showing me that human hearts are naturally sloped in a very different direction.

Imagine You’ve Only Got a Year

Experience, science, history and life has convinced me that we’re much more than just random collections of happenstance molecules. I’ve written about this before. If this is your perspective, then the “one year to live” mindset provides the motivation to choose the harder road of virtue because it places the end of life in plain sight. One year is enough time to make meaningful progress, yet it’s not so long that you can afford to postpone.

All this said, the idea of having one year left to live has quite a different effect if you happen to believe that human life has no ultimate meaning and no eternal significance. If you believe life is nothing more than a random accident of molecules and energy, and human life in particular is nothing more than the most advanced result of an unguided process towards greater biological complexity, then it’s party time. Why wouldn’t it be? There is no higher virtue except your own preferences and pleasures, and this probably won’t involve any intentional pursuit of virtue whatsoever. Why would it? All you’ve got is your bucket list.

It’s entirely possible that this whole business about personal virtue might be meaningless for you. That’s okay. I’m not here to force anything. Just like love, a hunger for virtue can never be forced. I’m just sharing a mindset that helps me achieve what I think is important. Perhaps it will be helpful to you, too. And the one thing about living life as if you had only one year to live is that someday it will be true for you. It may be true right now, you just don’t know it. None of us do.

One day your time on this earth will end, and with it your chance to pursue virtue in a world that naturally slopes in the opposite direction. I don’t know about you, but when that time comes for me, I think I’ll wish I could have a few more annoying people or challenging situations to deal with again, just so I’d have something to hone my virtue on. In the mean time, when I manage to remember, I aim to see the challenges of life as limited-time opportunities to grow.

Any thoughts? Tell me about them at [email protected]. I’d love to hear from you and will do my best to respond.

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– Steve Maxwell