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Closer to the End

May 17, 2010 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Living with the knowledge that we won’t live forever.

A few days after having a silly argument with my husband, I endured the worst night of my life.

My husband is a physician and sometimes he is called into the hospital in the middle of the night. At around 2 AM his pager went off, and my husband quickly got out of bed, dressed, and sped off into the night.

And what a night it was! I could hear a torrential rainstorm raging outside, punctuated by huge claps of thunder and dazzling flashes of lightening. As I sat awake in the house, I heard sirens go by outside.

I couldn’t sleep and soon my imagination ran wild: I imagined my husband’s car wrapped around a pole, car accidents, skids (God forbid!). I thought of the fight we’d had a few days before, and wondered if that would be the lasting memory I’d have of him. I pictured myself telling people, tearfully, “I had a premonition that night: I knew there’d be a car accident.”

I worked myself up into such a pitch, I made a resolution. “God, if you make everything okay tonight, I won’t squander the days I have left with my husband. I’ll try not to take for granted the days I have with my children, nor the days left that I can enjoy my health and all the blessings you’ve given me.”

By the time my husband called to let me know he’d arrived at work safely, I was a basket case. How was I going to fulfill all my promises?


Alfred Nobel, the 19th Century Swedish arms manufacturer who famously invented dynamite, showed how one can alter one’s life, even in late middle age. When Nobel was 55 years old, a newspaper mistakenly published his obituary. Reading it, Alfred Nobel was horrified. He had left no wife or children. His brother had died years before in an explosion caused by one of Nobel’s experiments. Nobel saw that he was remembered as a dealer in death and destruction.

Immediately, Alfred Nobel decided to alter the focus of this life. He dedicated his wealth to establish a series of prizes that would recognize the best of science and art in the world annually: the Nobel Prizes. He succeeded in changing his legacy from one of misery to one of dignity and purpose.

How, I wondered, can I follow this example and redirect my own life to greater meaning? How can I learn to savor each day, to live my life to the fullest, instead of wasting time or misdirecting my energies?

I began to think about a long-ago experience. Several years ago, my husband found out he needed to have life-saving heart surgery. He scheduled his surgery for a few weeks after his diagnosis, and we waited as the date approached.

We each nurtured an unspoken, private fear that we might not have much time left together.

We were both nervous. Each morning as we left for work, I told my husband how much I loved him, and I made sure to plan lovely evenings when we came home. During those weeks, with the knowledge that he faced an operation soon, you can be sure that we didn’t waste our time with fighting or even with meaningless activities. We didn’t zone out in front of the TV, or spend our time surfing the internet. When we were together during those intense weeks, we tried to make every moment count.

In some ways, those few weeks were amongst the best and most focused of our marriage. But they were also too intense, as we each nurtured an unspoken, private fear that we might not have much time left together.

How can we remember that our days are indeed numbered, but avoid succumbing to misery? How can we learn to appreciate every moment, without become paralyzed by grief and fear?

A Jewish Answer

The Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers says, “Who is rich? He who appreciates what he has.” We are all rich and blessed. We have all been given the abundance, the tools and talents that we need. A big part of savoring life is stopping and appreciating what’s already in our lives, whether it’s friends, relatives, good health, livelihood, etc.

Three resolutions have helped me to stop taking life for granted and start living it more meaningfully.

  1. Every day, I try stop for a minute to think about the good things in my life. They are not inevitable, and one day I know I won’t have them all anymore. So I’ve been trying to pause and appreciate them. (This is especially useful when things aren’t going exactly the way I’d like. Example: when my toddler drops a full jam jar, spraying the kitchen with a mixture of jam and broken glass, that’s my moment to remind myself how happy I am, really, to have a two year old!)
  2. I’ve come to see the concept of “killing time” as poisonous. Why would we want to waste time, our most precious resource? I try to structure my time so I can use it more meaningfully.
  3. Finally, I try to think how I’d feel if I only had this day, the day I’m living right now. This visualization always helps me re-prioritize and focus on what counts.

The 18th Century rabbi Reb Zusia once famously said that he had a terrifying dream where he met God Himself, who asked him a question. God didn’t ask him, “Why weren’t you a Moses or a Joshua?” Instead, He asked him something infinitely more frightening: “Why were you not Reb Zusia?”

We’re each given a life to lead and the tools with which to lead it. It’s up to us to figure out how to live it to the max, fulfilling our promise and not wasting our time.

I know I have a few days fewer in my life since that wild insomniac night, but I’ve enjoyed them more. Thinking about the passing of time has forced me to prioritize, and also to savor.

The clock is ticking. Each of us has been given enormous powers to live, to love, to change the world around us for the better. How will you use the hours you have left?


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