Years ago Jill Briscoe wrote a book called How to Fail Successfully. The story that Jesus told about a rich and successful farmer whose plans and dreams were cut short by the sudden announcement of his impending death is a story about how to succeed – but be a failure. It’s the story of a successful fool. Viewed from the perspective of his death, his life was a failure. As the late Steve Jobs said in a speech to university students in 2005, “almost everything… fall[s] away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
That speech from Jobs included references to three stories from his life. The third had to do with being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the illness that eventually killed him.
He talked about how he had read a quote along the lines of: “If you live each day as if it will be your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” That question led him to ask himself, every morning, if he would want to do what he was about to do that day if he knew that it would be the last day of his life. If he felt that the answer was “no” too many days in a row, he knew it was time for something to change.
He went on:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.
The implication of that? “There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
He went on to talk about the experience of being diagnosed and having surgery. At the time of the speech he was doing well, seemingly having confounded the medical experts whose initial prognosis had been very bleak.
Here is the take on death that he then shared with the students:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.
Given that time is limited, he argued, you shouldn’t waste it living someone else’s life. The opinions of others should not be allowed to drown out our own inner voices.
…have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
It was a very brave and powerful statement about how to live life from the perspective that it will soon be over. Not everyone is as honest and brave about questions of death and dying as Steve Jobs was.
The Christian good news proposes different conclusions and a greater hope, but in the story that he told about the unsuccessful successful farmer I think Jesus would underline the point that the knowledge of our death is an important tool in helping us to evaluate what is really important. The bottom line of the farmer’s story is that what he lived for suddenly lost its importance when he came to die. He had lived for the wrong things. He had lived to enjoy wealth.