A popular device of modern thinking is to pose a “penultimate” question, such as: “What would you do if you knew that this was the last day of your life?” A New Age version is “What would you do if you knew you could not (or would not) fail?”
Implicit in these questions are notions of repression, inhibition, conformity, a “blaming the victim,” as if no life circumstances from psychology, society, or environment has any affect on us or even matters, as if we humans were infinite, omnipotent, absolute. The person questioned is supposed to feel guilty about diurnal routines or a lack of faith, or insufficient will power. The person questioned is expected to reply with outrageous scenarios: a spiritual skydiving, psychological makeover, super heroics. Especially a change in those mundane things, but always intimate or indulgent, like the death row prisoner’s requested last meal of gluttonous pleasure.
Of course, the correct answer to the contrived question ought to be: nothing different.
Our lives are supposed to be governed by a tight correspondence to our personality, our body-mind-spirit. Assuming that today is our last day should make little difference to that inner harmony. We should not crave the mad indulgences that the question begs. If harmony is routine to a person, then the question does not matter. If harmony is not routine, then the question still does not matter because it points away from harmony towards indulgence and finiteness and courts death rather than meeting it. Philosophers from ancient Rome and China and ever since remind us to always have death present and before us. By living so, own actions can always reflect harmonious inner strength, stability, judgment. We reflect in our daily life that which is transient, but also that which is cumulative and accrues.
But the question of not failing takes its inspiration in part from modern business practice, where relationships are always tenuous and unpredictable, and success or failure is determined by ledgers and accounts and supposed objective factors. How much was made? How much was lost? The personality and values of the entrepreneur are assumed to dominate society as behavioral models implicit in the questions.
But the question of failure is in fact an inversion of death: “What would you do if you knew you could not or would not fail?” is in fact “What would you do knowing you will (eventually) die?”
The “would” must be “should” and the success of the enterprise is the success of one’s life, except that the measure can no longer be quantified by ledgers and accounts. We cannot pretend success or be dismissive of failure or death in the real world of self. The measure is a false analogy to commercial measurements but continues to be extended into popular questions: How many friends and associates (including social media “friends”), how many cars and what kind? How big a house? How many vacations and remunerative stocks? The pathetic face of society is to perpetually be limited to quantifying, limiting itself to the degraded material world, degrading, that is, to the degree that the planet is exploited for material wealth.
Death is not failure and pleasure is not success. We craft our lives according to a more subtle economy, a measure we must define for ourselves in intangibles, intangibles from which our material setting can then be assigned value. Society desperately wants to assign its quantifiable measures to the individual because society always controls more quantity than any one of us. It lacks the stuff of persons because it is a project without one-to-one correspondence to actual necessity.
Harmony assigns value relative to intangible forces, from sources more fruitful, creative, and nimble than its inflexible quantitative counterparts. The solitary already suspects that society must persuade, plead, and contrive value because collectively it is highly dominated by the inertia of the material. Adding conviction and insight into the intangibles of life liberates us from the plaudits of the world and its false dichotomy of success or failure, life or death.