Life Clock! Start with the End in Mind

As we move closer to the end of the year it is the natural time to reflect on the past year.  As another year passes, we can all look back on it and come to some conclusion, or at least a feeling about how we spent it.  This we know for certain…we won’t get 2012 back!!  Or 2011, 2010, etc.  Nope, we were either there for it or we weren’t.  We either owned it or we didn’t.

The following is another excerpt from the book That’s It.!?  In this section is what I (not so creatively) call the Life Clock.  As you will read, I had the thought to put this together many years ago as just another reminder to myself that life is fleeting; it is finite, and no amount of avoiding it’s impermanence will make it not so.  This Life Clock is a very simple spreadsheet that I am happy to e-mail anyone who requests it.  You might give it a try!  Just enter in your birth date and what the date will be at the end of your life.  It just might provide a slightly different perspective for you and help you understand this important point/lesson as it did me and has done for many others.  Enjoy!


Chapter 6

 – It’s Your Life – Start with the End in Mind and Take Ownership

“Don’t always choose the ground but we choose how you stand on it”

-from Deng Ming-Dao’s 365 Tao


“My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”

– Mark Twain


“You can’t change the waves, but you can learn how to surf”

– Swami Satchitananda


“It’s the living that must resurrect themselves”

– Albert Finney as Danny’s father in the movie Run of the Country


“Dear friend please know as you pass by

As you are now

So once was I

As I am now

So you will be

Prepare yourself

To follow me.”

             – a well known epitaph

A good mental image for the joy and appreciation of every day is that of a Native American saying, “Every day the sun rises, moves across the sky and sets.  A new sun is born, lives and dies, never to return as the same sun again.  We might want to live each day in a good way so that the sun won’t have wasted precious time.”


Here’s the deal as Mike sees it – No matter what your perspective, persuasion, religion, sexual orientation, genetics, diet, fitness level, etc – regardless of any uniqueness or idiosyncrasy you think you have…your life will end.  That’s not morbid, that’s just the deal.  If you think otherwise, then you’re in for a rude awakening at some point in your life.  I don’t remember exactly when I put this table together, but I remember a drive home from my job in Cadillac, MI, it was probably around 1993.  That night I wrote about my bad day and lamented the loss of the day.  I picked up a calculator and figured that if I lived to be 92 I would live 33,580 days.  That’s not very many!  From this realization I put this chart together.  


Life Clock pic

The number of years on the chart doesn’t matter, pick a number, any number.  The end point doesn’t matter, it’s a wild guess!  The point is to understand there will be an end, you can’t avoid it, and it might be good to live in a way that doesn’t waste this precious time!  That’s it!  And that’s all!

In his book The Way of Zen, Alan Watts submits the following,

Connected, then, with the pursuit of the good is the pursuit of the future, the illusion whereby we are unable to be happy without a “promising future” for the symbolic self.  Progress towards the good is therefore measured in terms of the prolongation of human life, forgetting that nothing is more relative than our sense of the length of time.  A Zen poem says, ‘The morning glory which blooms for an hour differs not at heart from the giant pine which lives for a thousand years.

Subjectively, a gnat doubtless feels that its span of a few days is a reasonable long lifetime.  A tortoise, with its span of several hundred years, would feel subjectively the same as the gnat.  Not so long ago the life expectancy of the average man was about forty-five years.  Today it is from sixty-five to seventy years, but subjectively the years are faster and faster, and death, when it comes, is all too soon.  As Dogen (a Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher who was born in Kyoto and lived from 19 January 1200 – 22 September 1253) said, ‘Flowers depart when we hate to lose them; the weeds arrive while we hate to watch them grow.’  This is perfectly natural, perfectly human, and no pulling and stretching of time will make it otherwise.”

Yep, no pulling and stretching of time will make it otherwise.  This way of thinking has us starting with the end in mind, and doing our best to relish each day and realize that we do not have an infinite number of them.

Here’s something Mike wrote in his journal that also points to this:

It’s not just the aging…

…it’s the separation, if you don’t watch it, from reality and expectation isn’t it?  The unlimited possibilities of youth become increasingly limited with time and what we imagined would be some unique and romantic adventure turns out to be no different than the whole of man’s experience.  Same transitions, same frustrations, same “sins”, same phases.  We knew it was coming; the hair leaves, accelerated by excessive sun and motorcycling, the skin becomes wrinkled, and for some reason the furrow on the brow becomes more pronounced.  It’s like the more you know the more baggage you carry.  The Zennists were so right, those simple fuckers.  How can it be that simple?  The hard drive of the mind fills with information, mostly useless, spurred by the thou shalts of society and external influences until we are rendered ineffective – maxxed out.  How do we hit the re-start?  Maybe this is why retreats were invented.

As we go through, just like the countless generations before, we rub our faces more, we have more itches and do more scratching, our allergies seem to be worse and we are generally more susceptible to the weakening nature of the body – clearly more mass than energy.  Every time we rub our faces it springs back to normal a little slower and a little less – microscopic changes that only become noticeable at those nebulous points of reconciliation we have, like the realization that the sun sets two hours earlier than it did in June.  It moved two minutes every day and you just missed it. 

So what’s the answer?  You’ve brought the problem.  I don’t know man, maybe there is no answer.  Maybe it’s just the question.  You’re getting old, you knew you would, you even did the research.  You know that you breathe 18 breaths each minute, life passes whether you’re there for it or not. 

That’s all.

I would like to beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked in rooms or books written in a foreign language.  Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

–                   Rainer Maria Rilke

Like we said in the introduction, when the grim reaper taps you on the shoulder and gives you a few minutes for some final thoughts, what will they be?  Here are some interesting and well published retrospectives:


If I had my life to live over…

I’d dare to make more mistakes next time.

I’d relax, I would limber up.

I would be sillier than I have been this trip.

I would take fewer things seriously.

I would take more chances.

I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.

I would eat more ice cream and less beans.

I would perhaps have more actual troubles,

but I’d have fewer imaginary ones.

You see, I’m one of those people who live

sensibly and sanely hour after hour,

day after day.

Oh, I’ve had my moments,

And if I had it to do over again,

I’d have more of them.

In fact, I’d try to have nothing else,

Just moments, one after another.

instead of living so many years ahead of each day.

I’ve been one of those people who never goes anywhere

without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat

and a parachute.

If I had it to do over again, I would travel lighter than I have.

If I had my life to live over.

I would start barefoot earlier in the spring

and stay that way later in the fall.

I would go to more dances.

I would ride more merry-go-rounds.

I would pick more daisies.

– Nadine Stair, 85 years old.


If I had my life to live over…

I would have talked less and listened more.

I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded.

I would have eaten the popcorn in the “good” living room and worried much less about the dirt when someone wanted to light a fire in the fireplace.

I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth.

I would have never insisted the car windows by rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed.  I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage.

I would have sat on the lawn with my children and not worried about grass stains.

I would have cried and laughed less while watching T.V. – and more while watching life.

I would have shared more of the responsibility carried by my husband.

I would have gone to bed when I was sick instead of pretending the earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren’t there for a day.

I would have never bought anything just because it was practical, wouldn’t show soil or was guaranteed to last a lifetime.

Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy, I’d have cherished every moment and realized that the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.

When my kids kissed me impetuously, I would have never said, “Later.  Now go get washed up for dinner.”

There would have been more “I love yous”…more “I’m sorrys”…

But mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute…look at it and really see it…live it…and never give it back.

–          Erma Bombeck


When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.

And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves

And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired

And run my stick along the public railings

And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

I shall go out in my slippers in the rain

And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens

And learn to spit


You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat

And eat three pounds of sausages at a go

Or only bread and pickle for a week

And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats and things in boxes.


But now we must have clothes that keep us dry

And pay our rent and not swear in the street

And set a good example for the children.

We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.


But maybe I ought to practice a little now

So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised

When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.


–          Jenny Joseph


Here’s something that points to the same message from Kevin Spacey’s character in the movie American Beauty.

I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me.  But it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world.  Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once and it’s too much.  And my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst.  And then I remember to relax and stop trying to hold on to it.  And then it flows through me like rain.  And I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.  You have no idea what I’m talking about I’m sure.  But don’t worry.  You will someday…

It’s hard to imagine a more important point in this life than to just love our lives and have the perspective necessary to understand its limited nature and ultimate end.  The purity of the message from those at the end of their days is compelling; no agenda, no profit motive.

So we look at our lives and know it is impermanent and should be cherished – even the “bad” stuff.  Now that we have this perspective we need to take ownership.
In closing, here it is from the 365 Tao:


There are no ancients before me,

No followers behind:

Only the vastness of heaven and earth

On this mountain terrace.

Though heaven may know the ultimate,

Joy or sorrow is our own will.


We stand alone in this life.  No one lives our life for us.  Neither drug nor sorcery can remove us, even for a moment, from our own life.  We can deny it, but it is useless:  We are here alone, to engage every precious moment according to our wills.

The precedents of the ancients may be helpful, but in the end they are only references.  The thought of those who will follow after us is likewise merely a consideration.  What matters is being; pure being.  Accept who you are.  Be who you are.

If there are gods in the heavens, maybe they know the future.  As a human being, I can only say that the future is yet to be made.  Let us go forth and make it, but let us make it as beautifully as we can.  The degree of elegance is determined by our own will and the perfection of our own personalities.  Therefore, do not sigh over misfortune or adversity.  Whether you are happy or sad is entirely up to you.

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