Knowing what life has in store for us

Living with uncertainty is not an easy task. It can be the source of many anxieties.

I often go through this with my patients, for example when we may have found something sinister but more time is needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Yet, when it comes to our lives and deaths, we always live in uncertainty. But what about the opposite: what if we knew what life has in store for us?

Chloe Benjamin deals with this theme in her book The Immortalists.

At the beginning of the story four young siblings visit a fortune-teller who gives them the dates when they will die. This knowledge influences the rest of their lives and the choices they make. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Three of the four siblings die on the predicted date, largely as a result of their own doing.

I wonder if the information increasingly available through genetic testing will influence our lives and deaths in a similar way. Would we live our lives differently knowing what may be ahead of us? Could this knowledge also create its own anxieties and problems?

Here are five things to consider before ordering a genetic test.

What really matters

Dying is an intense sad process, but there is another side to it as well: people often take the opportunity to reflect.

As a doctor I have the privilege to talk to people who are nearing the end of their lives. A while back I asked one of my wonderful 85-year old patients what had been most important in her life.

She didn’t need much time to think, and said: “That has to be my family, doctor, and the move from England to Australia with my husband.” Her loved ones, and the journey that changed her life – she couldn’t have been more concise.

I asked myself: what matters most? I found three inspiring life lessons.

#1: Achieving childhood dreams

Randy Pausch was a professor in computer science who died of pancreatic cancer. He became well-known after he gave a lecture titled The last lecture: Really achieving your childhood dreams. It went viral on YouTube.

In the video below Pausch gives another, shorter, inspiring speech to university students about how to live your life well by nourishing relationships with others and expressing passion. Pausch died 68 days after giving the speech.

#2: Don’t be afraid to fail, be afraid not to try

“If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” Apparently Steve Jobs asked this question everyday, and it has become a guiding principle for many. Like Randy Pausch, Jobs was looking for passion: “There is no reason not to follow your heart,” he says in one of his famous speeches. Jobs reminds us that all negatives, like fear of embarrassment or failure, just fall away in the face of death.

#3: Begin with the end in mind

One way of following your heart is to begin with the end in mind. This principle is very similar to Steve Jobs’ philosophy, and it’s habit two of Covey’s famous 7 habits of highly effective people:

(It) is based on imagination – the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes. It is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation. The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint. If you don’t make a conscious effort to visualize who you are and what you want in life, then you empower other people and circumstances to shape you and your life by default.

A patient once told me that he and his wife took their four-wheel drive and caravan five times on a trip around Australia. I said I’d love to do the same one day but that five times was a hard act to follow. He looked at me and replied: “Aim for it.”

When I listen to my terminally ill and elderly patients, they remind me – like Pausch, Jobs and Covey – to keep on trying, have fun and be there for others.