The Morbid Thought That Will Make You Happier (That Most People Ignore)

The key to living well just might be found in considering how it all ends.

Morbid idea that, time is limited. Live your life Rido, simpson33 | Canva

It made the front page of the newspaper when it happened. I guess it was big news in the sleepy, small town I grew up in. Or perhaps it was just a slow news day. At two years old, I had a heart valve removed. I was born with a heart defect that could only be made right by eliminating the problem valve through open-heart surgery. Replacing it wouldn’t work, as the heart would continue to grow as I aged. They did the surgery, and for 40 years, I’ve lived one valve short.


If it slowed me down, I didn’t much notice. I played sports and ran countless miles over those 40 years. But in the back of my mind, I knew it might catch up to me one day. Because of the whole missing valve thing, I return to the hospital each year. The doctors take measurements and collect data. Then they bring me into the room, where the meeting goes the same way every year.

"Your heart looks great, see you in twelve months."

Until this year, that is. The meeting that had gone the same way 40 times went a different route this time.

"We need to get you a new heart valve."

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The doctor delivered those words void of any perceivable emotion. No different than if he’d told me I needed a nasal spray for my sinuses. I sat there for a long moment. I knew I should say something, but nothing came out. I nodded my head. 

Thanks to Google, I knew basically what it entailed. In my case, it would be open-heart surgery. The blood will be diverted from my heart and pumped by a machine. Another machine would breathe for me. With the heart relieved of its duties, a cold solution will be injected to stop it from beating. Over a few hours, the doctor will put a pig valve where the old valve used to be. If everything looks good, he’ll sew me back up, restore blood flow to the heart, and let me begin breathing independently.

Easy-peasy, right? Not quite. My brain immediately did the mental gymnastics it does so well. It told me about all the ways the surgery could go wrong. It made me think of what it would mean to die: something I didn’t appreciate at the moment but soon would. I know that sounds absurd. I’m not going to die. The data supports that this surgery has become routine and that there's better than a 99 percent chance I’ll be just fine.

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But in that doctor’s office, and for the next few hours, all I could think was, “What if it’s all going to end soon?” I thought to myself, “I need more time.” I want my wife to know that I’m still crazy about her and that her love made me the man I’ve become. I want more time with my young son so that he knows how much I adore him. I wanted to be there to help him through life’s hard times and see the man he becomes. I have to throw the football with my two stepsons and make sure they know I’m proud of them.

I need more time to be with the people that I love.

I thought nothing of work, making money, accomplishments, success, or the thousands of other things that consume almost all of our waking hours. Only when we allow ourselves to see the end does it become clear how we ought to be living. It was the thought of my life ending that opened my eyes to how precious our time is. Even if I didn’t need the surgery, how much time do I have? How much time do any of us have?

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I remember a similar feeling early in my law enforcement career, but it was not as personal as this one. Back then, encountering death became fairly common. The people who died usually had plans the next day. They had vacations scheduled, classes to take, and retirements on the horizon. They thought they had plenty of time left. I wondered: Would they have lived differently if they had known it was going to end?

If we considered that our time was limited, would we spend so much energy on things we won’t even remember in a month?

Would we argue over whose turn it was to take the trash out? Would we yell at someone who cut us off in traffic? Heck, would we even be okay with sitting in traffic? Or would we speak with more kindness?

"It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Life is long if you know how to use it." — Seneca

Would we give compliments more freely and let go of others’ mistakes? Would we live a more intentional life, one free of fear and fixating on minor irritations? A life where we couldn’t fathom scrolling social media for hours on end, knowing each moment was gone forever.


This is what I needed. I’ve been so caught up in my life, I hadn’t considered death. My future may hold heart surgery, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. But this surgery has gifted me with something far more valuable — a profound sense of gratitude and a chance to bear my burden without complaining.

To quote Andy Dufresne and Ellis Redding in Shawshank Redemption: Get busy living, or get busy dying.

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Joshua Mason is a former police detective and public safety leader turned writer. His weekly stories on Medium are dedicated to change, leadership, and life lessons.