Imagine you’re listening to the radio as you gaze at the horizon out your fourth-floor window. You see a mushroom cloud and immediately recognize it as the detonation from a nuclear bomb. You realize the 20-foot I-beam spinning toward you will strike you dead in three seconds. There is no way to escape. You simply wait.
You miscalculated the path of the I-beam. It sails overhead, narrowly missing the roof above your head.
The voice on the radio announces the bomb blast will level everything in the city in 3 minutes. Compared to 3 seconds, 3 minutes seems like an eternity. What shall you do with the time? Make a telephone call? Make peace with your god?
Now imagine a trip to the medical doctor. He matter-of-factly informs you that your condition gives you only three minutes to live. He leaves you alone with your thoughts. You ponder your life and wonder how to proceed. You think about calling somebody. Or maybe you’ll take a few deep breaths instead.
The doctor re-enters the examination room after 2 minutes and 30 seconds. He apologizes for his error and says you have about 3 hours to live, not 3 minutes. You breathe a sigh of relief. Three hours seems a long time compared to 3 minutes. You can make a few calls, pen a quick will, and record a few thoughts for posterity on paper.
Rinse and repeat for a diagnosis of 3 days versus 3 hours. And then for 3 weeks instead of 3 days. Three weeks! It’s nearly an eternity compared to a few days.
Three weeks doesn’t seem long until it’s compared to a few days. Ditto for 3 months relative to 3 weeks. And also 3 years compared to 3 months.
Three years is a short-term, terminal diagnosis. Few people would be satisfied to learn they have such a short future.
I doubt many people reading these words have 3 years to live. Habitat for humans on Earth will disappear shortly after the Arctic ice is gone next summer or the summer of 2019. Three decades is a pipe dream to be experienced by no humans on Earth.
Although 3 years is a stunningly short span of time, it doesn’t seem at all short relative to 3 months. Ditto for the pairwise comparisons of months to weeks to days to hours to minutes to seconds. Thus do the seven threes, from seconds to years, serve as a powerful reminder to live in the present moment.
We don’t have long. Pressum diem! May we find the means and the fortitude to squeeze the life out of every moment.
*The idea for this essay came from my friend Paul Marcotte, The Thoughtful Wanderer