Common examples include “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” — “What would you do if you only had 24 hours to live?” — and “What would you do if you were granted three wishes?”
In this article, I’ll be discussing a less frequently asked question: How would you spend eternity?
In the film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman that finds himself trapped in a cruel time warp. Phil Connors wakes up each morning to discover that tomorrow never arrived. Instead, he finds himself reliving February 2nd over and over again.
Everyone around him is seemingly unaffected. They act normally, living out every iteration of Phil’s endless dÃ©jÃ vu as if it’s their first. Meanwhile, Phil is doomed to repeat the day’s events only to have his efforts unmade once he goes to sleep. Consequently, he has an unusual form of eternity on his hands:
Phil lives in a predictable world that is devoid of all consequences. If he ends his day in a jail cell, he wakes up the next morning in his bed having never broken the law. If he cons a woman into sleeping with him with the promise of marriage, he wakes up the next morning having never even met her. If he tries to end his life, he wakes up the next morning completely unharmed.
Though he initially expresses rejection and hatred towards his unusual fate, Phil realizes he is completely powerless to do anything to change it. Once he learns that even death offers no escape from the repetition, Phil begins to embrace the infinite opportunity that his private eternity provides.
He starts to learn new skills. Although he starts small — mastering a talent for throwing cards into a hat from a distance — he eventually graduates to reading volumes of books. Phil’s interests blossom generously from then on as he discovers new talents as a piano player and ice sculptor.
In time, Phil exhausts the interests that benefit himself, and concentrates instead on acts that benefit others. He takes in an old homeless man and treats him to a warm meal. He saves a young boy from injury by breaking his fall from a tall tree. He marches into a restaurant, saves a choking diner using the Heimlich maneuver, and then coolly lights a woman’s cigarette on his way out. It is the positive effects his choices make on the people around him that finally breaks the spell and allows Phil to advance to tomorrow.
Phil’s transformation is one that truly fascinates me. Reliving the same ordinary day again and again is initially very terrifying and unpleasant — but Phil’s perspective changes as he embraces the infinite. He recognizes that although he has no control of the world around him, he has complete control of himself. In other words, he makes the choice to enjoy the time he’s given.
Unlike Phil, you don’t have an infinite amount of time to realize this. The time you have to experience this life is inescapably finite. That’s why you search for a purpose to life so relentlessly.
That’s why all of us search for a purpose to life so relentlessly. We create countless revisions of the same question, hoping that we can somehow disarm it. We try to make it less direct, less intimidating, and altogether more manageable. Then we try and use our answers to the new question to satisfy the original one.
Occasionally, it works. You gain insight into your true desires, and discover what you want to do with your life. You confidently embrace your life’s purpose, and transform into an unstoppable force as you work to fulfill it.
More frequently, it doesn’t work — but these failed instances still accomplish something: They cause you to think.
Sometimes they cause you to think about how your life would change with an abundance of money, a shortage of time, or a small set of wishes. This time, think about how your life would change with an abundance of time. What would you do in Phil’s place? How would you spend eternity?
When you consider this, maybe you’ll get a glimpse of what you truly want to accomplish before your time spent on earth is over. Perhaps then you’ll remember to actually start living before it’s your turn to die.
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