Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Beat the Deadline

An e-mail recently arrived from my ever patient editor, stating: “Reminder-Today is the deadline for your column”. Yes, I had forgotten about the deadline, and I hurried to get something finished in time.

Deadlines work. They motivate procrastinators to finally get something done. They push people to make quick decisions. That’s why on the Home Shopping Network, it announces “there are only 23 minutes left to buy this item”. Deadlines come when a window of opportunity is closing, and people don’t like missing opportunities.

There is something jarring about the word deadline. And for a moment that day, the word deadline reminded me of that ultimate dead-line, death.

We ignore this ultimate deadline. Woody Allen put it this way: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Indeed, the Midrash says that the ability to repress thoughts of death is a divine gift, without which we’d become depressed and cease to be productive.

However, disregarding death is a mistake. The Bible says “the heart of the wise man is in the house of mourning”. The house of mourning can be a house of learning, with the ultimate deadline teaching the lessons.

Life is easily wasted. The famous quote of Marcus Aurelius, “live each day as if it were the last”, reminds us that the key to life is beating the ultimate deadline. Enjoy life before it’s too late. The Talmud says “grab and eat, grab and drink, for this world we will leave is like a banquet”. Live a meaningful right now. Rabbi Eliezer says that one must repent every day, because each day may be one’s last. Life’s too short to ignore our spiritual possibilities.

Death also teaches us what’s truly important. Our priorities change if we think about what our legacy will be. A French newspaper prematurely published an obituary for Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite in 1888. Nobel read his own “obituary”, and disturbed by its critical tone, decided to create a better legacy for himself by establishing the Nobel Prizes.

You don’t need to establish (or win) a Nobel Prize to create a legacy; even small acts of greatness count. The Talmud tells of an elderly man who was planting a carob tree, a tree which takes 70 years to bear fruit. A Rabbi asked the man: do you expect to eat carob fruit 70 years from now? The man answered, that he was planting the tree for his children, much like his father before him had planted trees for him as well. This simple tree was his legacy, an act of intergenerational love lived on, well past any deadlines.

I hope my editor will be happy; I’m getting this article in on time. I also hope that some day, when I face the great editor upstairs, I will have everything I need in order, just in time for the deadline.

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