Recently, a relative told me a bizarre story.
It all started like a typical day, he told me. He drove to work and did his job as usual. At lunch, one of his co-workers approached him. “You know what,” she said unsuspectingly, “I feel like I need to exercise again. It’s been a while.” Of course, none of them made much of it — just the average dose of small talk.
The next day, however, something unexpected happened. The co-worker couldn’t walk up the stairs anymore.
Diagnosis: ovarian cancer.
They gave her six months to live.
Sometime later, it turned out the doctors were mistaken. It was actually peritoneal cancer. While this revoked her sudden death sentence, it didn’t make the situation any less tragic. It’s still a dangerous disease and immensely difficult (if not impossible) to treat.
Now, I don’t know how the story continues (or ends). But I’m sure about this: That co-worker wasn’t aware it’d be the last day of her life as she’d known it. The last time she would come into work. The last time she would have the option to exercise. The last time she would walk up the stairs.
And yet, despite the tragedy of this story, a beautiful idea hides in it:
Every time you do something, it could be the last time you do it. Of course, you never know when it actually is the last time. But that’s precisely what makes every single moment infinitely precious.
The Life-Changing Magic of “The Last Time”
The first time I heard about this idea was in a talk by Sam Harris. I was immediately enchanted. Here’s what he says:
“Let’s say you’re a new parent, and you’re getting woken up several times a night by your baby. That’s brutal. But there will be a last time. And knowing that can change your experience in the moment.”
When I lived in Porto this past winter, I went for an occasional dip in the ocean. It was windy. It was icy. But I never felt so alive. Afterward, I would catch some sunshine on the porch, enjoy a book, and sip some tea.
And yet, I didn’t do this very often because I always thought my time in Porto was unlimited. In fact, I naïvely believed my life was unlimited. “I’ll go tomorrow,” I kept telling myself. But unfortunately, tomorrow never turned into today. And so, before I knew it, I’d moved back to Germany where the ocean feels lightyears away.
Sam encapsulates the problem nicely:
“We do everything a finite number of times. And yet, we tend to take even beautiful moments for granted. And the rest of the time, we’re just trying to get through stuff.”
This concept radically reshaped my perception of life. Not just in terms of big, beautiful events, but also the small stuff — making coffee in the morning, having a nice dinner with friends, seeing my parents. And let’s not forget about the uncomfortable events in between — waiting in line, getting stuck in traffic, coping with illness.
Because here’s the thing:
If you knew you only had a few days to live, you would give everything to get one more experience — no matter how awful. To get one more taste of life. To relish the beauty out of every single instance. Not necessarily because it’s so fun, but simply because you’re alive.
Because you’ve lived.
Remembering that everything you do could be the last time injects a little bit of magic into all your actions. Think about it — every moment (including this one) is a “last time” in itself. It will never come back. And even if this instance feels soul-wrenching, isn’t it poignant to realize that you’re lucky enough to experience it in the first place?
Let’s not pretend this idea is easy to implement — nor that it eliminates any hardship in life. But it does offer a fresh outlook on existence. Which reminds me of a horribly moving event I experienced last year.
The Bizarre Fragility of Your Existence
In my hometown, I always take the same route to the city center. It’s the same one I used to take to school every day. I know it by heart. Every little detail.
First comes the central station, then the driving school where I got my license, then the nightclub where I celebrated my 18th birthday, and then a place where you can get hotdogs all night. I don’t know how many times I’ve taken this route. Must be in the thousands. Pure nostalgia.
And yet, on June 25th, 2021, that changed forever.
A man walked into a department store between the nightclub and the hotdog place. He grabbed a long knife from the kitchen supplies, walked back out on the street, and stabbed anyone in his path. Three people died. Five were severely injured.
I wasn’t there. But so many circumstances could have put me in that situation. I could’ve decided to meet a friend that day, stroll around the city, or get a hot dog. But I didn’t. So here I am.
I’m not trying to be theatrical. Statistically, the chances of such a horrible event are probably even lower than getting struck by lightning.
It makes you think deeply about life. People died on the path I used to cross every single day, so why pretend I’m the exception? I’m not special. I could’ve died on that day, just like I could die today.
Ultimately, we’re not in control of being alive. Let alone staying alive. The universe is not picky. Any day, an infinite amount of circumstances can end our fragile existence on Earth — or, at the very least, the way of life as we know it.
What right do we have to be here then?
The Strange Word That Boils Down Your Existence
The only way to explain that you’re traversing this life at this moment in time is luck. The odds that I’m alive, that you’re alive, and that you’re reading this are so miraculously low — I can’t express it in numbers.
Thousands of virtually impossible miracles had to happen to get to this point. Here’s what I mean:
- The Big Bang had to give birth to the universe.
- Earth had to ripen into the perfect concoction of temperature, sunlight, radiation, water, and atmospheric gases.
- The first form of life had to magically spring into existence in a small puddle — and again, this had to happen under most ideal conditions.
- Evolution had to pave the way for mammals, bonobos, and, eventually, the first humans.
- All of your ancestors had to be in the same place at the same time, meet, and have sex with each other.
- Each of these times, one of up to 1.2 billion sperm cells had to reach an egg and successfully fertilize it.
- Finally, your birth had to go well, and you had to survive until this point.
If any of these events hadn’t happened or deviated in the slightest, you wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t be here today. Deep down, your existence is the accumulated improbability of all these impossible events. If that’s not luck, I don’t know what is.
The German word for luck is Glück. But that’s not the only meaning of the word. Glück also translates as happiness. Call it a cliché, but I think that’s what our existence is all about: Glück.
It’s the happiness of getting lucky enough to live.
A Tool to Appreciate Life
The original reason my relative told me the story about his co-worker went deeper. It motivated him to quit his job. He wants to live more fully, learn Italian, and spend more time with his girlfriend. Whether or not he was aware of it — he leveraged the power of “the last time.” He realized the preciousness of life.
So, as you go throughout your day, your week, your life, just think about this idea. Could this be the last time? Don’t try to be in every single moment. Simply give your mind an occasional nudge.
And to be clear, you needn’t quit your job or make a radical change to live more fully (although if you do, more power to you!). This idea isn’t really about existential dread and frantically ticking off your bucket list.
It’s about appreciating life with all its flaws and edges.
It’s about realizing the fragility of your existence.
It’s about grasping the miracle of being alive.