Hypothetical Ends of the World

In language teaching we often make use of the hypotheticals particularly the "what would you do if…" kind. These can be both a fun tool to practice speaking and open up conversation as well as an easy way to get the imagination going. Most of them are not considered more than flights of fancy but just occasionally they can throw up a serious issue worth thinking about a little more deeply.

Two of this kind in particular are the:

1. What would you do if you found out you had a week left to live?


2. What would you do if for whatever reason, you, and everyone else, knew the world would end in a week?

Although seemingly similar, they can yield two quite different answers.

The first one assumes that only you are going to die, and in that case most people say they would spend their remaining week in the company of friends and loved ones as little else seems to matter. Depending on how you vary the length of time left to live in the question, it should yield some different answers, but even with a week I'm sure most people would think about spending time with loved ones and enjoying some of the pleasure of life, be that nice wine, good food or something else, with an emphasis on experiences rather than material things.

Considering death sharpen's the mind about what is most important in life. The central character in Paulo Coelho's "Veronica Decides to Die", starts truly living when she is motivated by the belief that she doesn't have much time left. She uses the remaining time to do all the things she never dared to do before. This leads me to the Samurai concept whereby they already considered themselves dead, and thus lived without fear of death, knowing it was imminent, and so took the time to appreciate being alive. It’s also what made them such fierce warriors.

There is something to be learned from this way of thinking, a mindful approach to how we live. We would do well to be regularly reminded of our mortality - memento mori - because in the bustle and busyness of life it’s easy to forget.

The second question leads us somewhere quite different. Here the assumption is, not that only you have a week left, but that we all only have a week left, due to some impending, inescapable catastrophe - a meteor strike or some-such. Although some sentiments along the lines of wanting to be with loved one remains, oftentimes people answer this questions along more hedonistic lines, saying they would use the time to engage in pleasurable experiences - whatever that may mean - without much feelings of guilt.

Indeed it is hard not to imagine that such a scenario would result in a week long party where people would drink the remaining stocks of Dom Perignon, Wagu beef and Godiva chocolate. It is an interesting thought experiment that raises some interesting questions. How much of civil society would break down? Would money become essentially worthless? What about looting? Why would people need to keep going to work or school? Would public services and public transportation shut down? Why would we need to care about having a healthy diet or healthy teeth?

Of course religion suggest for many that what we do in this life matters in the next, but if the world were inescapably ending next week and we all knew it, much of what we do in our daily lives would become pointless. We might as well enjoy indulging ourselves in our remaining days!

Perhaps these imagination games just make for a fun English lesson, or even parlour conversation for philosophers, except that they don’t! Because it’s soberingly real. The Trump administration, having now decided that climate change is in fact real, have also concluded it is inevitable and that we might as well just enjoy our remaining days. Meanwhile the world heats by 4 degrees by 2100, the biosphere collapses, and for many, if not all of us, the world ends. We haven't got a week, but what would you do if you knew the world was going to end in roughly 80 years?! Isn’t that a memento mori for all of us?


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