Updated: Nov 16, 2018
“An ordinary man has a tragic accident that leaves him grappling with the bleak reality that he only has 24 hours to live. Now he must quickly decide what to do with the precious moments that remain...”
The late great Dale Carnegie has been crossing my mind a lot lately. Often when I find myself suffering through an episode of tunnel-vision or fretting about the mundane side of life, I end up thinking about Carnegie’s insightful messages. Recently, I’ve been pondering one of his principles that he claimed to be a way of overcoming worry. It was the first part of a broader strategy he outlined in his approach to dealing with many of life’s struggles. If followed correctly, what came along with this principle was the promise (or at least the possibility) that one can attain a means of completely liberating him or herself from the burden of worry.
It’s well documented that for many of us the stress and worries we encounter throughout our lives can be virtually debilitating and often self-destructive. Drawing on a concept coined by Sir William Osler, which he called Living in Day-Tight Compartments, Carnegie postulated that most of the worries we face in life could be successfully managed if we simply started approaching things one day at a time. In his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Carnegie quoted Thomas Carlisle: “It is not our goal to see what lies dimly in the distance but to do what clearly lies at hand.” I think I’ve finally come to understand the wisdom in adopting this approach to structuring one’s days.
Without going into a full analysis of the concept (which is well beyond the scope and point of this blog post), it can be expressed, more simply, through an example. Imagine if, at the time of your birth, you were to be given an instruction manual with orders covering everything that you’ll ever be required to do during the eight or ten decades of time you expect to be alive. This book has within its pages all the knowledge of every task and function you’ll ever be asked to perform, from the most minuscule, to the most challenging. What do you think that would look like? How do you think that might make you feel? Would your infantile blood pressure immediately start to rise?
Magically, the cover of your life manuscript flips open and somehow your seconds-old brain is able to read. Every task, every function you’ll ever be asked to perform is detailed in the several hundred-thousand pages of instructions. Everything from learning how to suckle at your mom’s breast to swallowing the last bite of food from your final meal is in there. Likewise, spelled out in excruciating detail are the rigors of learning how to transition from crawling into a walker, then from stand-alone walking to eventually running. Each of the roughly 65,000 times you’ll brush your teeth are meticulously described; the 30,000+ times you’ll tie your shoes and put on your dresses or pants are in there as well.
There are the millions of simple tasks you’ll be required to undertake. These range from taking out the garbage, to making your beds, to the agonies of the many insignificant defeats your infantile self is sure to encounter. The thousands of hours you’ll spend in school; the countless subjects you’ll be required to master; the professional and personal milestones you’ll attain along the way; the pain you’ll likely experience through physical accidents (and in some cases sickness) are listed there, too.
Vastly important, the emotional struggles you’ll no doubt encounter at some point on your journey were not omitted from this epic treatise either. Those include, of course, all the trials and tribulations of your many friendships, the relationships with significant others, and all other familial matters (which, taken on their own, could themselves fill volumes). Described also are the rigors of career ambition and the insecurities brought about by never-ending competition.
Included in there too is the expectation, and the challenge, of having a family of your own someday and becoming a mother or father, of growing old and completing the inevitable cycle of life that looms for all and spares no one. And then, of course, there’s the anguish of losing loved ones. Not one aspect of your entire future life is missing from this manual that your made to examine the moment you’re born.
Can you imagine what it would be like, only minutes old, being asked to think about and prepare for all that’s listed (and asked of you) in this life manual? Daunting? Overwhelming? Worrying? These are all far too weak descriptors for the feelings I imagine would be experienced as you scanned the pages. Debilitating and paralyzing come closer, but they still probably don’t do the feeling justice. Utterly depressing? For sure. Incapacitating? Most likely. Faced with all this burden, how many of us might just decide to opt out right then and there? “No thank you…I’ll take a pass. Can I go now?”
Although this is a crude and exaggerated example, it’s really not much different than the process most of us go through in our real-life approach to our days, weeks, months, years, and, yes, even our entire lives. Indeed, all those things we end up doing during the course of our lifetimes could actually be written down and presented to us as a unified work, in a single moment, like in the example above. None of us who faces the experience of being born are immune to life’s responsibilities. We, indeed, eventually end up doing just about everything listed in our book (and probably then some).
But somehow, we manage to tread our way through the events that end up being what ultimately make up the entirety of our lives. Most of us don’t throw in the towel. We find a way to make it through. Some of us fail, some of us flourish, but almost all of us find ways to get through it.
I would argue, however, as did Carnegie, that most of us spend far too much time and energy worrying our way through our better years, looking ahead at the wall of work that sits in waiting while thinking back on areas where we came up short of expectations. We end up living our present lives regretting past experiences that are long gone while preparing for a future that we hope will be different but never seems to happen. We put our heads into a place that exists in the “yesterday” or the “someday” rather than in the “now”. Though this may seem like a gross exaggeration, on a smaller scale this is exactly how most of us approach the days of our lives.
We go into each day under the weight of everything that looms ahead, often times carrying the burden of things that project out well into the future. We skip the gym workout, for example, because we’re not thinking of it as just one workout; we’re thinking that this is just the next in a life-long series of trips to the gym; we’re carrying the burden of the next 500 workouts with us instead of the one trip today. “My God it feels impossible to make such an enormous commitment,” we tell ourselves, so we often never even allow ourselves to get started. How many times have we heard the statistics on all the gym memberships that are signed up for but never used? It is here, perhaps, where the material selected for paving the road to Hell quite possibly turns out being good intentions.
So, as Carnegie would probably agree, it behooves us all to live in those Day Tight Compartments. Treat each day like a lifetime. Put all your spiritual, emotional and physical excellence into the spans of only one day—the one you’re living right now. Perhaps do even better by breaking that day down into the individual tasks that together make up its final composition. Treat each moment with utmost care and attention. With a little effort, any one of us can do at least that much.
If appropriately applied, the Day Tight Compartments concept has been confirmed by millions of Carnegie fans as a way of reducing or altogether eliminating worry, but there’s another aspect of it that interests me even more, and on a much grander scale. As Carnegie likewise noted, if we were to treat every single day of our lives with complete intention, with full concern and a sincere sort of dedication, the results could be life-changing. This, because all worry about the past would no longer be relevant. If each day, within its 24-hour clock-cycle, were to be lived to full potential, all worry over past indiscretions would become moot. Since all those days would have been lived so richly, there would be nothing in the past left to worry about. The catalyst for any shameful behaviors or feelings of disappointment would have been completely annihilated.
As for the future? If each day from this one forward were to be lived in the precise moment of the “now”, the future should hold the same splendid prospect as does the past. By living each day, one at a time, and to our highest standards, the past and future would both be taken care of automatically. Not only would we have eliminated the worries of our lives, but we—in the end—would have structured ourselves an existence in which we’re living to our fullest and most mindful ability, a regretless truth, that would perhaps be looked back on with absolute joy, unwavering pride, and wholly satisfying dignity. The future would be approached with a newfound and steadfast sense of confidence and enthusiasm.
Can you think of a better way that one should fashion their life?
Finally, we’ve arrived at the subject of a new story that’s been on my mind lately. Considering all that was just covered, a big question is now begged: how do you live the next 24 hours of your life to your fullest ability? I believe that question is best answered by asking yourself what you would do with the next 24 hours if they were the only ones you had left. True, as responsible citizens of the planet we can’t all run out and pretend that every day is our last day on earth. But I do think an exercise examining what our final day would look like might pinpoint what’s really most important to each of us. And from this understanding, we might arrive at a precious framework from which we’d be wise to structure each of our Day Tight Compartments.
With that all said, here’s the blurb for a new short story I’m planning on writing. How would you approach the dilemma posed below? If you had some kind of control over it, what would your last day on the planet look like? What would you be certain not to leave out or forget not to do? And with whom would you find yourself most compelled to spend your final moments?