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The Last Time Always Happens Now

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William Irvine, an author and philosophy professor I’m a big fan of, often tries to point people towards a little-discussed fact of human life:

You always know when you’re doing something for the first time, and you almost never know when you’re doing something for the last time.

There was, or will be, a last time for everything you do, from climbing a tree to changing a diaper, and living with a practiced awareness of that fact can make even the most routine day feel like it’s bursting with blessings. Of all the lasting takeaways from my periodic dives into Stoicism, this is the one that has enhanced my life the most. I’ve touched on it before in my Stoicism experiment log and in a Patreon post, and I intend to write about it many more times in the future (but who can say?)

To explain why someone might want to start thinking seriously about last times, Bill Irvine asks us to imagine a rare but relatable event: going to your favorite restaurant one last time, knowing it’s about to close up for good.

Predictably, dining on this last-ever night makes for a much richer experience than almost all the other times you’ve eaten at that restaurant, but it’s not because the food, decor, or service is any different than usual. It’s better because you know it’s the last time, so you’re apt to savor everything you can about it, right down to the worn menus and tacky napkin rings. You’re unlikely to let any mistakes or imperfections bother you, and in fact you might find them endearing.

It becomes clearer than ever, in other words, how great it was while it lasted, and how little the petty stuff mattered. On that last dinner, you can set aside minor issues with ease, and appreciate even the most mundane details. Anything else would seem foolish, because you’re here now, and this is it. It might even occur to you that there’s no reason you couldn’t have enjoyed it this much every time you dined here – except that all the other times, you knew there would be more times, so you didn’t have to be so intentional about appreciating it.

That’s an exceptionally rare situation though. Almost always, we do things for the last time without knowing it’s the last time. There was a last time – on an actual calendar date – when you drew a picture with crayons purely for your own pleasure. A last time you excitedly popped a Blockbuster rental into your VCR. A last time you played fetch with a certain dog. Whenever the last time happened, it was “now” at the time.

You’ve certainly heard the heart-wrenching insight that there’s always a last time a parent picks up their child. By a certain age the child is too big, which means there’s always an ordinary day when the parent picks up and puts down their child as they have a thousand times before, with no awareness that it was the last time they would do it.

Ultimately there will be as many last times as there were first times. There will be last time you do laundry. A last time you eat pie. A last time you visit a favorite neighborhood, city, or country. For every single friend you’ve ever had, there will be a last time you talk, or maybe there already has been.

For ninety-nine percent of these last times, you will have no idea that that’s what it is. It will seem like another of the many middle times, with a lot more to come. If you knew it was the last-ever time you spoke to a certain person or did a certain activity, you’d probably make a point of appreciating it, like a planned last visit to Salvatore’s Pizzeria. You wouldn’t spend it thinking about something else, or let minor annoyances spoil it.

Many last times are still a long way in the future, of course. The trouble is you don’t know which ones.

The solution, Irvine suggests, is to frequently imagine that this is the last time, even when it’s probably not. A few times a day, whatever you’re doing, you assume you’re doing that thing for the last time. There will be a last time you sip coffee, like you’re doing now. What if this sip was it? There will be a last time you walk into the office and say hi to Sally. If this was it, you might be a little more genuine, a little more present.

The point isn’t to make life into a series of desperate goodbyes. You can go ahead and do the thing more or less normally. You might find, though, that when you frame it as a potential last time, you pay more attention to it, and you appreciate it for what it is in a way you normally don’t. It turns out that ordinary days are full of experiences you expect will keep happening forever, and of course none of them will.

It doesn’t matter if the activity is something you particularly love doing. Walking into a 7-11 or weeding the garden is just as worthy of last-time practice as hugging a loved one. Even stapling the corner of some pages together can generate a sense of appreciation, if you saw it as your final act of stapling in a life that’s contained a surprising amount of stapling.  

Irvine uses mowing the lawn as an example, a task he doesn’t love doing. If you imagine that this is the last time you’ll mow the lawn, rather than consider it a good riddance, you might realize that there will be a time when you’ve mown your last lawn, and that there were a lot of great things about living in your lawn-mowing, bungalow-maintaining heyday. A few seconds later, it dawns on you that you still are.

You can get very specific with the experiences you do this with. The last time you roll cookie dough between your palms. The last time you get rained on. The last time you sidestep down a crowded cinema aisle. The last time your jeans smell like campfire smoke. The last time your daughter says “swannich” instead of “sandwich.” Virtually everything is a worthy candidate for this reflection.

It always brings perspective to your life as it is now, and it never gets old. It’s an immensely rewarding exercise, but it not a laborious one. It takes only two or three seconds—allowing yourself “a flickering thought,” as Irvine put it—to notice what you’re doing right now, and consider the possibility that this is indeed the last escalator ride at Fairfield Mall, the last time you put on a Beatles record, the last time you encounter a squirrel, or the last time you parallel park in front of Aunt Rita’s building.

***

Photo by Phil Hearing

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{ 32 Comments }

Ron September 24, 2021 at 2:25 am

Wonderful, David. Thanks. On the heavier side of this practice, I have learned the hard way to always say “I love you” when parting with a loved one. Because you truly do not know that you will see them again. Enjoy every experience to the fullest. Be kind always.

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David Cain September 24, 2021 at 9:29 am

This practice can get very heavy when it involves saying goodbye to loved ones before hanging up or going off to work, but the resulting gratitude is immense. The stories of people saying goodbye to family members heading to work on 9/11 are especially heartwrenching, because it was such a normal day at that point.

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AC Harper September 24, 2021 at 2:30 am

In a fictional book I’ve been ‘writing’ for years there is a group called ‘the Brotherhood’. These are people who live a philosophical life (developed from Epicurus) alongside normal society. Their principal aim is ‘to die content’ and they freely share their ways of achieving this.

So, in the Brotherhoods’ way of living, you should aim to a little more present, a little more genuine, bringing perspective to your life. Perhaps this will make you feel more content with your life. Which is just as well for if you wish to die feeling content then you might not know in advance when your time is upon you. And in the meantime you benefit from an immensely rewarding exercise.

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David Cain September 24, 2021 at 9:32 am

Epicurus knew what was up! “Dying content” seems like an excellent goal, and would lead to practices like this once you recognize that you have no idea when death will happen — you have to always be finding contentedness now.

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Natacha September 24, 2021 at 2:41 am

I love it David, and I am also a great fan of William Irvine! I heard him for the first time 10 years ago being interviewed in the CBC program Ideas, while I was preparing lunchboxes for my kids to bring to school the next day!

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Rocky September 24, 2021 at 7:24 am

Beautiful David ….. but I can’t help thinking that ignorance is somewhat blissful.

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David Cain September 24, 2021 at 9:34 am

He is just so damn likeable, especially in audio form. Stoicism needs warm voices like his.

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Vilx- September 24, 2021 at 3:07 am

Has it ever backfired? Like, you thought “this is the last time I do X” and then the next thought “Yess!!! Good riddance!!!” – and then “Oh, wait, probably not. Shit….”

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David Cain September 24, 2021 at 9:37 am

For me, not so far. Whenever I contemplate the last time possibility, regardless of the activity I immediately remember that I’m alive now, and that aliveness is to be appreciated, even if there are particular parts of it I don’t love. Every activity, even an unpleasant one, is immediately tied to so much else that you will miss when it’s gone. Mowing the lawn is an example — you might not like the act itself, but it come with other great things, like being outside, living in peacetime, being young and able enough to do manual labor, etc.

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Björn September 24, 2021 at 3:07 am

I love this post!

As we’re living in the “time of cholera”, it seems important to love also the small stuff.

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Andrew September 24, 2021 at 5:45 am

I sometimes use this closely related mental hack:
If I somehow ended up in prison or something, and was there thinking back to this moment, what would I think?

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David Cain September 24, 2021 at 9:38 am

I have done something similar since I was a kid, especially with the experience of being at school. I imagined I had just escaped a dungeon into the classroom, which made the place feel pretty okay.

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Lei Lani Lucero September 24, 2021 at 7:58 am

Reminds me of a comedic bit about ‘last cookie enjoyment’. If you don’t pay attention to reaching into the bag for a cookie, you may be surprised that you had eaten the last cookie when you reach into the empty bag, and you missed out on that ‘last cookie enjoyment’.

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David Cain September 24, 2021 at 9:41 am

Ok man, I have done exactly this. Eating a sleeve of Oreos, making a mental note to enjoy the last one, then my mind lapsing long enough to realize I ate the last one with the same “there’s more to come” feeling I ate all the rest with.

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Maryellen September 24, 2021 at 8:10 am

So, in case this is the last time I get to read a Raptitude post, I’m going back to read it again and savour every sentence and the delightful picture at the top. I’m being serious here, not the least bit ironic or would-be funny.

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Naomi September 24, 2021 at 8:47 am

Ditto! What if this were the last time I read a new Raptitude post in my inbox? And this, just to let you know David how I enjoy your posts! Thank you for sharing your view of the world with us, whether this is the last post or not.

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David Cain September 24, 2021 at 9:48 am

Thanks Naomi :)

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David Cain September 24, 2021 at 9:46 am

I have been doing this a lot with reading books lately. This could be the last time I sit in my chair with an open book in my lap, and if it were I would really dedicate my attention to getting what the author is saying. It deepens my focus, making me realize my attention is usually not full committed to that.

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Gale September 24, 2021 at 8:25 am

Above my desk I have two Latin phrases: “Memento mori” (remember we will die) and “Carpe diem” (seize the day). These remind me of the things you discuss in your excellent post. I’ve tried to always think of the goodness in each thing (good or bad) and to be mindful of the fleeting nature of our lives. Just 5 days ago, my husband landed in the hospital with what may be West Nile virus, something I didn’t know much about but has quickly changed our lives. We’ve enjoyed each phase so far, working to find contentment in what is rather than what is not. Thank you, David. As always, I’m grateful for your post.

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David Cain September 24, 2021 at 9:52 am

That’s another benefit of this sort of exercise — it disrupts the notion of good and bad developments, because you’re always in a moment with many facets and little certainty about what happens next, the only sensible thing is to be with it.

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Em September 24, 2021 at 9:41 am

Thanks David, for always bringing the important into focus.

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Michael September 24, 2021 at 12:01 pm

To borrow an expression from the young-uns, you’ve hit me in the feels. Always a pleasure to read your work, and it brings real contemplation and perspective to my life.

Thank you.

BTW, your ‘How to do Things’ is wonderful. I always sought a minimalist version of GTD.

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J.H. September 25, 2021 at 3:16 am

This is so poignant and beautiful. I’ve been desperate to escape Winnipeg for so long now, and this is a great reminder to appreciate all the things I might miss someday.

While I’ve tried especially hard to keep this perspective in mind with people after my best friend died when we were teenagers, there are still always endings you never see coming.

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Ron September 25, 2021 at 4:55 pm

Such a great essay, David, thank you

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David September 27, 2021 at 10:12 am

Perfect.

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Brian Storey September 27, 2021 at 1:35 pm

Thanks David
This piece reminded me that there is no bad weather, but there are various degrees of good weather.
Brian

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Matt D September 27, 2021 at 5:50 pm

I would often do this with my cat. He would spend his evenings purring on my lap and sometimes I was excruciatingly aware that one day would be last time. All those moments helped when he didn’t come home one day in May.

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Accidentally Retired September 28, 2021 at 4:36 pm

Love this as usual. I am a fan of A Guide to the Good Life and this is a good reminder of embracing everything as if it is our last time. I also think of this similarly to beginner’s mind. Seeing things as if we saw them for the first time. Both have merit and the same spirit of being in the moment, and revering the good and the bad.

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Reinier September 30, 2021 at 4:51 am

It resonated deeply David, and will ripple into my life. Thank you so much for sharing it.

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Aditya D. October 2, 2021 at 7:21 pm

This is such a profound idea, David. Really resonated with me and was a great reminder of how fleeting life’s experiences really are. It’s important we remain present and engaged, as opposed to obsessing over what the future holds or mulling over the past. I know I do this more than I’d like to admit, and is something I’m actively working towards. Thanks for this essay.

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Lizzie Hough October 7, 2021 at 8:21 am

Just reading this in my emails after attending my 50th High School Class Reunion. I pondered these thoughts and even commented that it will probably be the last time I will see/visit with an older family friend…not to mention my classmates from 1971. Thank you for expanding this concept.

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Jonas Phaedrus October 13, 2021 at 6:21 am

This reminds me of a Marcus Aurelius quote, which I have often used to great effect: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” — Marcus Aurelius. Meditations 2.11.
I say to my self, that death could take me at this precise moment, and I automatically know what would justify death (thoughts abandoned, action taken, words said) if it came upon me. Very uplifting – especially when I experience suffering, resistance and difficult emotions.

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