The Deathbed Test

Have a big decision to make? Take a job, start or terminate a relationship, move to another state or even a new country, do something that might make an enemy, or, worse, be illegal?  How should we make major choices which might be life altering? 

When I retired from law teaching in 2004, the graduating class asked me to give a talk to them in the law school auditorium in the last week before we all left law school. My little speech was entitled “Five Things I Wish I’d Known When I Was Graduating From Law School,” and this post is about one of those: the “deathbed test.” First a little introduction.

I was riding is a cab in Washington, D.C., once when some idiot driver cut us off and nearly caused an accident. I was furious (given that my possible unexpected death bothers me), but the driver was more or less nonplussed. How, I asked him, amazed, did he stay so calm when other drivers behaved like morons? He laughed and said it happens so much that if he let it upset him every time, he’d have to quit driving. “When I first started,” he elaborated, “I had the usual reactions—calling out words like ‘jerk’ and foul language, and then fuming about it all day, but I learned to stop that.” “How,” I asked, impressed. He smiled at me in the mirror. “I ask myself will this be important next year? The answer’s obvious, and I can go back to driving happily enough.”

The deathbed test is just an extension of that piece of wisdom. Suppose that you get to live a very long life and in your nineties are lying on your deathbed for two whole weeks or more. Of course you’ll have plenty of time to review your entire life, going over both the good and the bad. For some things you slap your head and say, “How could I have . . . (fill in the blank: married that jerk, agreed to work for Uncle Al, gotten drunk and thought it was okay to drive that Friday, etc.)?” For other memories you’ll laugh out loud with the pleasure of what happened. “Taking her hand at that moment was perfect!” “Leaving Columbus was the smartest thing I ever did!” “Throwing a party for myself when I turned 50 was such a great idea!” and so on.

Life is always a mystery, and its decisions are frequently gambles. But deep inside there’s almost always a feeling, one way or another, as to what is ultimately the best thing to do. I suggest that when you’re in such a pickle, you take a moment to ponder the long view. Ask yourself the deathbed question: “On that future bed, dying, thinking it all over, what will I remember about this choice? Did I think it through enough? Will I be pleased with my decision? Or will I want to go back in time and slap myself hard?”

This won’t always help, of course, but you’ll be surprised how often it does make things clearer. A little “reverse hindsight” like this allows your future self to have input into the big moments of your life.

In another blog I’ll pass on my other thoughts from that graduation lecture, particularly “How To Make Ethical Decisions,” which I drummed into my law students for decades, knowing they were about to go into the legal jungle where messy wrong choices can lead to big problems like disbarment and/or jail.

Related Posts:

“How To Make Ethical Decisions,” December 12, 2010;

“When Atheists Die,” October 17, 2010;

“Life's Little (But Important) Rules,” April 23, 2011;

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog”;


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