Life Lessons – From a Pulitzer-Prize Winner, a Country Star, and an American Idol

Chimesfreedom wishes you a happy and healthy new year with this post about a Pulitzer-Prize winning book interpreted indirectly through song, leaving you with a question to ask yourself every day throughout the new year.

Although Tim McGraw is not one of my favorite singers, there are times when popular artists record a song that is undeniably clever and catchy.  Popular songs are popular for a reason.  And I cannot help liking his song, “Live Like You Were Dying,” and the way it also relates to one of my favorite books.

“Live Like You Were Dying” exceeds anything else McGraw has recorded.  Part of the reason may be the somewhat unusual message in the song.  Although traditional country music has a history of delving into deep adult themes, often modern country music ends up as superficial as most pop music.  “Live Like You Were Dying,” though, summarizes one of the lessons from Ernest Becker‘s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Denial of Death.

Ernest Becker & Our Mortality

Becker’s book touches on several themes, but a principal theme may be summarized (in a somewhat oversimplified way for a short blog post):  (1) human beings are intelligent; (2) because we are intelligent, we are faced with the knowledge that we are rotting pieces of animal flesh that will someday die; (3) this knowledge of our mortality is overwhelming, so we push the knowledge to our subconscious; (4) to help us deal with our knowledge of mortality, we latch onto various cultural devices that help us suppress our fear of death — such as activities that subconsciously make us feel immortal, like rooting for sports teams, shopping, exuberant patriotism, writing a blog, raising children, etc.

There are both upsides and downsides to our subconscious quest for immortality.  It may drive us to do things that benefit others, but it also may make us subconsciously hostile to others who have belief systems different from us.  If you believe something different than I do, you threaten the subconscious protections I have created as a shield against my mortality.  In the last few decades, “Terror Management Theory” psychologists have done significant research regarding how these theories affect our real world interactions.

Ernest Becker’s books, in particular Denial of Death and Escape from Evil, explain the theories in more detail.  But his work is based on philosophers, psychologists, scientists, etc. going back more than a century.

What does all this have to do with a pop song by a country superstar?  Although there is an aspect of Becker’s work that initially sounds depressing, there is an uplifting side, and that is portrayed rather well in the song.  One of Becker’s points is that if you are consciously aware of reality — including one’s mortality and the ways we may try to suppress it — then it may help you embrace life and more accurately assess value to the things in our life.

Live Like You Were Dying

“Live Like You Were Dying” begins with a friend in his early 40’s telling the narrator about getting bad news from the doctor relating to his x-rays (otherwise the song is vague about the exact nature of the disease).  The narrator “asked him when it sank in,/That this might really be the real end?/ How’s it hit you when you get that kind of news? /Man whatcha do?”

The friend, instead of responding about being angry or depressed, tells the narrator in the chorus of the song:

An’ he said: “I went sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing,
“I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu.
“And I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter,
“And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.”
An’ he said: “Some day, I hope you get the chance,
“To live like you were dyin’.”

The friend then explains how he became a better husband, a better friend, and a better son.  The chorus repeats with the friend restating the wish about hoping that the narrator gets the chance “To live like you were dyin’,” explaining in the bridge, as the music builds:

Like tomorrow was a gift,
And you got eternity,
To think about what you’d do with it.
An’ what did you do with it?
An’ what can I do with it?
An’ what would I do with it?

Although the song was written by songwriter Tim Nichols and not by Tim McGraw, the video reflects McGraw’s connection to the song.  In the final chorus, starting at around the 3:00 mark, you see a Phillies pitcher throwing a strikeout to Willie Wilson of the Royals to win the 1980 World Series.  The image is not there because McGraw is a Phillies fan or because he hates the Royals; that’s his dad Tug McGraw on the mound.

Tug fathered Tim as the result of an affair and they did not have a relationship until Tim was a teenager.  But the two became close later in life.  Tug McGraw passed away from a brain tumor in early 2004, and Tim McGraw recorded “Live Like You Were Dying” later in the year in memory of his father.

In the song, because the friend is talking to the narrator, the singer is singing the questions to us.  So, you are asked, if you knew that each day was precious and you were dying, what would you do?  The question is relevant to all of us.

As Ernest Becker explained, we each only have a limited number of days to live.  More than 56 billion people in the world died between Jan 1, 2010 and Jan. 1, 2011, with most enjoying last New Year’s Day not knowing it was their last. Many of us will not be here a year from today.

Our time here is short, and each day we are closer to death, giving us the opportunity to live like we are dying — instead of just dying. This new year, each month, and each day, including today, is a gift.

What can you do with it?

What are you going to do with it?

Live Like We’re Dying

Bonus American Idol Copy of Idea and Song Title: In 2009, American Idol winner Kris Allen recorded a song with a very similar title and similar theme to Tim McGraw’s song.  Allen’s song, entitled “Live Like We’re Dying,” repeats the theme of McGraw’s “Live Like You’re Dying” with a riff that may be more catchy to those turned off by men wearing cowboy hats when they sing.

We only got 86 400 seconds in a day to
Turn it all around or to throw it all away
We gotta tell ’em that we love ’em while we got the chance to say
Gotta live like we’re dying

The song, written by four writers, is more generic than the McGraw song.  It tries to send a similar message without the personal story of the country song.

Oa recent road trip, I heard the song late at night driving through New Jersey, and the catchy tune did get stuck in my head.  But the meaning behind the song is not as emotionally powerful as in the personal story of the country song. Give it a listen.

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    5 thoughts on “Life Lessons – From a Pulitzer-Prize Winner, a Country Star, and an American Idol”

    1. Thanks for the ambitious new years resolution idea. I’ve been thinking about reading this book since you mentioned it a while ago.

      I like the advice in the McGraw song. The Kris Allen song and video are really over produced. It’s a shame.

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