Remember the old Bette Davis classic "Dark Victory," about the rich and beautiful young socialite who discovers she has only 10 months to live?
Davis' character moves through shock, denial and then a wild, dangerous and angry defiance of her fate -- all-night parties, drunken binges, high-speed car rides. Eventually, with the help of an understanding physician (who, of course, falls in love with her) she comes to a significant realization.
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What is really important in her remaining days is not how much she does, but the quality of what she does and the intimacy she shares with the people around her. In the bittersweet ending, the young woman (as you'd expect) dies. There is, however, a true peace in her death.
Most people who see this film seem to be touched by its message. It rings true to our own struggles with the meaning of our lives.
Such awareness is not limited to us adults, either. In my work with teenagers, I sometimes ask them to imagine that their lives would end in six or seven months. I then suggest they list all the things they'd want to do with their remaining time. As they do this, we are able to see in their choices the underlying values they find important.
Almost always these young people list such ideas as taking time for people, being more caring and helpful in their relationships, or living slowly enough to really appreciate the world around them.
I think we all suspect that, were we faced with only a brief period in which to live, we would do things a lot differently. Some of us might imagine ourselves going on a big binge. Most of us, though, would probably see ourselves slowing down, spending more time with friends and family, traveling, exploring, etc. And I suspect we would spend some time reflecting back on the meaning of the life now coming to a premature end.
"Dark Victory" speaks to many of us, perhaps, because we realize, deep down inside, that our way of living today often does not express the values we cherish most.
A father is so busy remodeling the house that the kids get neglected. A wife gets so wrapped up in work that there isn't time for her husband. We rush past the person on the highway who needs our help. We drive through the forest preserve so quickly that we fail to see the fall colors. We spend our money on more and more luxuries while people across town go hungry.
With only a few months to live, probably most of us would radically change the way we live. But what about today?
Let's face it, we're not going to quit our jobs or let our house fall apart, or give away all our money because we care about the poor. But we can make a conscious effort to let our behavior reflect more of our concern for the truly important things in life.
We can work less overtime and spend the time with our family. We can take a casual walk with our spouse to enjoy the changing season. We can give an hour a week to the local food pantry or senior center.
I hope we are never faced with the painful crisis depicted in "Dark Victory." Yet, when we take time to think about it, we all recognize that our days are limited.
The challenge, then, remains the same. Will our actions in the time remaining to us express the values that are really important to us? Our "victory" will be found in how we live out our answer to this question.