I don’t believe I’ll live to grow old. It’s not that I think I’m going to die young or burn out before 30 because I’m living so hard. Rather, I know all too well that life could end at anytime.
When I was 16-years-old, a mosquito bite almost killed me. I went to bed with a piercing headache, and if it wasn’t for my mother’s investigation of “strange noises,” I would have been dead the next morning. More than a close encounter with death, though, I struggled with the consequences of that illness the following two years.
This mosquito transferred a virus to me that infected the fluid surrounding my brain, causing it to swell and compress my brain resulting in multiple grand mal seizures, a stroke, and leaving me in a coma for four days. Over the couple years it took to fully recover my speech, my struggles were a constant reminder of how close to the edge of life I had gone. Every time I lost my train of thought, every word that wouldn’t come out mid-sentence, every time I was told,“It’s alright, Ethan” when I stopped a conversation dead in its tracks, was a reminder of life’s fickleness.
Insight has different degrees of intensity. Nothing makes the fact that you will actually die one day more shatteringly clear than teetering on the edge of your own oblivion.
And to be reminded of that experience by the shortcomings of my brain-damaged mind many times each day for multiple years—it drove the understanding of life’s transient nature deep.
We all tend to act with the expectation that we are going to live a full, long life. After my brush with death, I realized reality could intrude on that naive belief at anytime and no longer could I confidently project my future on a near-century-long mental timeline. I understood the future and how much lies ahead for each of us are unknowns.
This change in belief caused two major shifts in my life:
1. Knowing that life could end at any time, I was no longer able to justify shying away from or putting off what was most important. Now was the time to act—a later opportunity may not exist. Naturally introverted, this understanding became the shove from the sidelines into the action for me socially. It was the reason I chose to ride a bicycle across the United States during a college summer break instead of get “direct patient care experience” to improve my chances of acceptance to medical school.
This understanding led to my highest highs, world travel, and the most wonderfully obsessive work I’ve ever done: helping others come alive through my blog, The Living Theory. It’s a list of things people who play it safe and differ living will tell you are irresponsible—but have brought such satisfaction, excitement, and purpose to my life.
2. I found greater value in every moment. In simple terms of supply and demand, the less the supply, the greater its value. The same goes for time. Consider the shift someone undergoes when diagnosed with a terminal illness—one moment they believed they had decades ahead, the next they discover they have months. It’s possibly the most devastating news one could be dealt, yet with such an increase in value, the quality of their remaining time will be radically better. They will spend those last months with courage and intent, in sight of the everyday miracles we walk sightless among because of the extreme value of their time.
Simply put: the less time you think you have, the more you value that time and the higher the quality of your experience. With value of time comes presence, awareness, and a heightened sense of what is most important to spend that time on.
What I’ve come to realize is that the ultimate result of this shift in belief was something magnificent—a higher quality of life. And for this reason, that damn mosquito bite was the best thing that ever happened to me, the man with mere months left to live, with a whole life ahead of him.