Money, Stuff, and the Deathbed Experiment

If you’d excuse the rather confronting title, I’d like to invite you to undertake what I call the ‘Deathbed Experiment.’ It’s simple and goes like this:

Imagine you are on your deathbed and someone asks you: “What attitudes defined your life?” What would you want to be able to say?

This thought experiment never fails to move me in some way, and I always feel that it moves me in the right direction. I share this experiment with you today because I feel it is a useful tool for prioritizing our time and attention as effectively as possible. Furthermore, I feel it can help us accept without complaint those things in life we cannot change and prompt us to set about changing those things we can. To my mind, that’s a lesson that never gets old.

The Deathbed Experiment can also help us ‘live without dead time,’ as the phrase goes. It can help us keep life’s defining purpose (whatever that might be for each of us) at the forefront of our thoughts and, by doing so, keep us measuring the value of our actions in relation to whether we are furthering that purpose. Moreover, the Deathbed Experiment has the ability to suck us back into the present and keep us living ‘in the moment’ for as long and as often as possible.

In those times when we realize that we have lost the moment and stopped living deliberately, we might return to the Deathbed Experiment and at once find ourselves living deliberately again.

Taken seriously – and I would suggest it ought to be taken seriously or not at all – the Deathbed Experiment can provoke us to reflect on life’s big picture and what role our attitudes have in shaping it. I raise it for consideration today because I find that it can be particularly enlightening when it comes to thinking about our attitudes toward money and material possessions. Ask yourself: “On my deathbed, what attitudes will I have with respect to money and material possessions?” However we answer this question, let it shape our actions today.

My guess is that a person on their actual deathbed rarely says, “O how I wish I had spent more of my life working to pay for even more consumer goods.” However, I suspect that many people in consumer societies today might come to the end of life and question whether they should have dedicated so much of their time and energy to acquiring ‘nice’ material things, at the expense of various non-materialistic goods such as time with friends and family or time to engage in creative activity. Since life is much too precious to waste, we should do everything we can to avoid the terrible regrets of overconsumption and materialism. The Deathbed Experiment, I feel, can help.

To paraphrase Henry Thoreau, we should aim to live only what is life, so that we do not, when we come to die, discover that we had not lived.

What do you think of the Deathbed Experiment? Does it affect the way you think about money and material possessions?

9 Responses to “Money, Stuff, and the Deathbed Experiment”

  1. Ralph says:

    Thanks Samuel. Being a Christian I often focus on the fact that our lives here are only temporary and that once you die you can’t take anything with you to the next life. Becoming a Christian hugely changed my outlook on life 28 years ago, to as they say “loving people and using things, rather than loving things and using people.” It moved me to start living a simple life with a focus outside myself, on God, creation and people. It moved me in the long run to do a 180 degree shift in my career. I started off as an electronics engineer. I found that working with people was much more meaningful than working with things, so I retrained and am now working as a counsellor/psychotherapist. So glad I made that change.

    I also love what you said, “accept without complaint those things in life we cannot change and prompt us to set about changing those things we can.” I have found if you really set your mind to it you can change a lot more things in life than you expected.

  2. Grant says:

    Thanks also Samuel! I did this experiment last week and I came up with three things for myself.(1) Be empathetic; because its the basis of caring interaction with others and myself.(2)Spend time in Nature; it relaxes me and puts me in touch with myself and other beings and enhances my sense of belonging to the Earth.(3)To be present; if I am present and in the moment I can live more fully and remain conscious of my choices, not pushed or pulled my memories, ideas, shoulds etc.

  3. Dash says:

    Dear Sir,

    NB: This is not a response to this individual post but a general comment on voluntary simplicity.

    I came across your site while doing some reading. I agree with some of your points about the level at which physical possessions can take over our lives.

    However I disagree with your arguments in attacking the fetishism to which consumption has been elevated. Not that consumption has become a fetish for some, that’s obvious but rather your argument is somewhat hypocritical.

    By advocating simplicity with such vigour are you not treating your consumption as fetish yourself? The only two groups who are truly obsessed with sex are nymphomaniacs and the intentionally celibate. Surely a healthy attitude toward our possession lies somewhere in the middle?

    Secondly, I’m not sure that voluntary simplicity should be a political movement at all. Quite quickly the idea will cease to be voluntary nor will it remain simple. Persuading individuals to change their own habits is admirable. But as soon as the movement becomes “political” its objective is to use some of the fiat that the government possess.

    Ultimately all power of the government comes from their monopoly on violence. Once voluntary simplicity starts changing laws or policy, the people that the policy or law change affect are subject to an involuntary change.

    As for the simplicity, well it doesn’t require too much imagination to see how politics complicates things.

  4. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Ralph, thanks for your comment. You are quite right to note that there are strong elements of simple living in Christian thought, as there are strong elements of simple living in all the major religions and spiritual traditions. Jesus certainly lived a life of voluntary simplicity, as did Buddha, and many other spiritual leaders. I was speaking with a friend today about how remarkable it is that in almost all the ancient wisdom and spiritual traditions – despite all that these traditions disagree about – there seems to be a consensus on the value of simplicity and the dangers of materialism. Isn’t that interesting? There must be something to it.

  5. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Grant, thanks for your comment. It sounds like your experiment was a success. What I find is that the process of actually living in accordance with such goals as you have set isn’t simply a matter of ‘deciding’ to embrace them. The decision is one thing – keeping to it is another. This is why I feel it requires regular reflection and readjustment. The Greek and Roman Stoics were great advocates of the importance of self-reflection. Only by reflecting on our lives can be sure that we are living deliberately. It’s so easy to fall into ruts.

    I’ve read an excellent book on Stoicism recently, which you might be interested in, by William Irving. “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.”

    Thanks again for your comment.

  6. Samuel Alexander says:

    Ralph, by the way, you might be interested in the following essay by a Christian advocate of simple living.

  7. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Dash, thanks for your comment. I always welcome thoughtful criticism like yours. But please don’t call me ‘Sir’ 🙂 Sam is fine.

    Your point about whether there is a ‘fetishism’ to writing with vigour about simple living is interesting. I would accept that that it is certainly possible for someone to be so concerned about commodity fetishism that they end up having an anti-commodity fetish – which is a fetish all the same. From one perspective, perhaps, Diogenes the Cynic could be placed in that category. It is said that when he saw a boy drink from the river with his hands, he threw away his only possession, which was a cup.

    But I don’t feel that writing with vigour about simplicity implies the fetish you speak of or is anyway hypocritical. If you read a few more posts on this website you will see that voluntary simplicity, as I discuss it, is exactly what you suggest it should be – finding the middle way between too much and too little.

    Your second comment also raises an interesting and very complex point. I can’t provide a complete response here, but I do wish to suggest that things are more complex than you seem to imply. You say that there is no need for simple living to become a political movement. I respectfully disagree and I’ll provide an example to explain my point.

    Let’s take transport, for example (but this underlying argument applies across the board). Many people living simply aspire to escape the car culture and instead use their bikes to get to work. But the fact is that cities these days don’t always make cycling a safe or feasible option. Who would risk biking to work, for example, along a busy freeway if there weren’t good bike lanes? My point is that we make our private / individual decisions within a social structure that makes some actions easy and others difficult. That structure shapes the options we have available and ultimately shapes the world we live in. Currently ‘Western’ societies are structurally opposed to simple living, making it much harder than it needs to be to live simply. Changing that structure is in many ways dependent on government action (e.g. making better bike paths, providing better public transport).

    So a politics of simplicity isn’t about forcing people to live simply. It’s about creating a social structure that allows people to live simply if they wish to. Currently we have no such system, and its causing a whole lot of problems and locking people into high consumption lifestyles. In short, it is not enough for people living simple just to ‘escape’ the system. Part of the job is to ‘transform’ the system.

    I’ll be addressing issues like this often in future posts, so if you are interested, watch this space.

  8. Dash says:

    I think it can be generally agreed that Diogenes was a bit of a tool. A wise man who showed that virtue is in dependant of environment, still a bit of a tool all the same.

    While you say you’re advocating a middle ground some of your writing does not reflect this. Remember, eloquence in for forum is often considered rhetoric in the study.

    For example to argue it from the other side. If I were to use the phrase “revolutionary spirit of buying new stuff”, would you accuse me of having a consumption fetish?

    If I were to say those choosing to live in voluntary simplicity were people in the grip of Belphegor, would you accuse me of advocating a middle way?

    When you start talking of revolution and accusing people of being in the service of Mammon, one the seven prices of hell, you can see how I could mistake your vigour for fervour. My apologies that I have.

    As for politics, I didn’t say “simplicity” can’t be political. I’m saying “voluntary simplicity” can’t be. Your bike paths for example. The resources for these have to come from some place. Either it comes from taxing people more, or providing less some place else (like hospitals, schools or electoral printing allowances). What you are advocating isn’t voluntary simplicity but subsidized simplicity.

    You’re taking from someone else so you can live simply. You’re simplicity is at the expense an other’s choice. Our system isn’t anti simplicity. Our system promotes and rewards industriousness. Industriousness offers people the choice. I can have more or I can have less. Personally, I’m pro choice.

    The Philosopher King himself Marcus Aurelius was at one stage the most powerful man on the planet. But he did not force his virtues upon others. Seneca another of the great stoics did not force modesty upon anyone, even himself. But still, every ethos needs its whiskey priest.

    Also, FYI. The story of the Fischer Space pen is actually a myth. Fischer actually sold pens to both the Americans and Russians. Fischer developed the pen independently of government, with private funds. Regular ballpoints or fountain pens would work in space (but both would be quite messy though). They stopped using pencils because the graphite flecks become a hazard. But still, why sully such good marketing stories with facts.

  9. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Dash, again I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

    Diogenes was obviously a radical but he was making important points about what is important in life. You call him a tool. Plato called him “Socrates gone mad.” I think Plato was closer to the truth.

    I feel you have already made up your mind about my position, so I don’t hold out hope of persuading you otherwise. But let me just reiterate that voluntary simplicity, as discussed on this website, is about knowing ‘how much is enough? For as Lao Tzu said, ‘Those who know they have enough are rich.’ This involves finding the middle way between too much and too little. It is about sufficiency and moderation in consumption. This message is reflected everywhere on this website. I’m not going to apologise for writing about these issues with passion. I am passionate about them. And surely I’m allowed to be rhetorical at times, and write with vigour and fervour? That does not make a person ‘fetishistic’ as I understand the term.

    You say that voluntary simplicity can’t be political. In response, I made an attempt to explain why it can be political. Just because the state is involved in promoting a certain way of life that does not necessarily mean that it is some how imposing that way of life on others. You say you are ‘pro choice’ as if it were possible to have a social and political structure that was ‘neutral’ between conceptions of the good life. Such neutrality is impossible.

    You dismiss my position as ‘subsidised’ simplicity as if there could be a position (the free market, perhaps?) that didn’t ‘subsidise’ any lifestyle. All social and political structures subsidise some conception of the good life. I vote for bike paths, someone else might vote for more roads. Neither choice is neutral. I’m saying that due to problems such as environmental degradation, global poverty, overpopulation, limits to economic growth, peak oil, consumer malaise, etc., that perhaps it would be a good idea for politics to promote simpler lifestyles.

    My point about the bike paths is that “choice” always takes place within a social and political structure that makes some “choices” easy and others difficult. A politics of voluntary simplicity would seek to make living simply an easier choice. You are entitled to disagree that such a politics is necessary or a good idea, but you cannot dismiss such a politics on the grounds that it opposes your pro-choice position. It just makes different choices easier and different choices harder.

    I’m happy to continue this dialogue but I have no interest in ‘doing battle’ with readers of the website. Reasoned argument, of course, is to be encouraged. Please bear this in mind should you choose to comment further, which I would encourage you to do. By all means, write with vigour and fervour!

    Again, thank you for dignifying me with your criticism. I’m grateful for your feedback.

    P.S. You will see that I edited out a line in the first paragraph of your comment as I didn’t think it contributed positively to the discussion. I acknowledge, however, that you were referencing one of Diogenes’ infamous acts. I hope you understand my position here.

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