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Short Story: “Your Final Ambition”

On your deathbed, in agonizing pain, you are given the chance to reduce your suffering. But in order to do so, you must reduce your worldly success by the same amount.
By
man

Side view of a man climbing the concrete stairs made in the shape of a graph. Cloudy sky and city are in the background. Concept of success and achieving your goal. Mock up. Toned image © ImageFlow / shutterstock.com

November 19, 2023 03:56 EDT
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Something to consider when reading/listening: Would you sacrifice the present for the sake of the past? 

Many years from now, you are a hugely successful and accomplished person. You’ve achieved everything you’ve ever wanted. But you’re lying on your deathbed in agonizing pain. Every part of your body is screaming at you to make it stop. 

You don’t know how long this will go on. It might be minutes, but it could be hours, even days. 

A nurse appears by your side. She has big eyes and a sympathetic smile. She holds your hand and says they can reduce the pain. But in order to do so they’ll have to proportionally reduce your past achievements. If they relieve the pain by 10%, the past will be rewritten to make your life 10% less successful. The total turnover, earnings, products brought to market, books written, cases won, whatever it is. All of it will be reduced by 10%. 

Just to clarify at this point. Let’s say that although you’ve been wildly successful, you haven’t found the cure for cancer, you haven’t pioneered life-changing technology, or led a revolution, or done anything that has seriously changed the world. 

You’ve excelled, but you’ve done so in a normal way. Whatever line of work you’ve always wanted to work in, you’ve reached somewhere near the top of that particular mountain. 

“We can go further,” says the nurse as the pain saws through your bones, “We can reduce your pain by 50% and your success will be cut in half. And we can get rid of the pain entirely. And you’ll spend your final moments on this earth in perfect peace. In the absence of pain, you’ll be blissfully happy for however long you’ve got left.” She smiles and squeezes your hand. “It’ll be a happiness greater than anything you’ve ever experienced. But as far as the world is concerned, it will be as though you’ve achieved nothing at all.”

At this point, she clarifies that, however much success you choose to get rid of, everyone you care about will be perfectly fine. Your close family might be less well off financially and, when asked about you, they’ll struggle to recall anything you actually did. They’ll forget you almost immediately once you’re gone. And they certainly won’t spend any time talking about you. But none of these people will be any more or less happy within themselves whether your level of success is 100 or zero. 

So what do you choose? What level of pain do you accept to preserve all that success? 

Let’s say you try 5 or 10% at first, and the pain does subside, but it’s still close to unbearable. 

“Now that you’ve started,” says the nurse, “you might as well go a little further, no?”

You ask her what it is you’ve sacrificed. What success have you just eradicated? She chuckles. “No dear,” she says, “that’s the point. It’s gone. That 10% you did away with, it’s gone for good. I can’t recall it. You can’t recall it. Nobody can. And you don’t miss it do you?”

You feel a stabbing all the way along your spine. Through the agony, you try and recall some of your finest achievements. You can picture the applause, the warm glow, the sense that the sacrifice was worth it. It’s all very distant, but you can still faintly remember how you felt. And the idea of that all disappearing, it’s hard to take. But so too is the pain you feel now. 

“Go down to fifty,” you say. And you immediately feel a sense of relief. You notice for the first time how beautiful the nurse is. You can see the sun through the window spreading out across the floorboards. The dust dancing in the spotlight. But there’s still a deep, dark pain across your entire body. Less, much less severe than before, but after ten minutes you’ve lost sight of the comparison and all you feel is the total, consuming pain. 

You try and think back to your career and your achievements. All those hours spent hard at work seem like mere flashes, less real than the dust rising from the floorboards. You still have a vague sense of success, but you’re no longer entirely sure why.

“You’ve come this far,” says the nurse, “why don’t you go all the way?” 

You try to focus on her big green eyes. But the pain is still searing in every inch of your body. 

“What are you holding onto?” she says. “Whatever you’ve achieved, whatever you’ve done, isn’t it already gone? It’s just me and you here now, darling. Why not make all that pain go away?”

She goes to the window and adjusts the curtains. Covered by the light, she’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen and you long, you desperately long to be at rest, at peace, with the nurse by your side. 

But can you really give up everything? Can you really have every mark erased? Can you die a failure? What sort of peace is that? 

“Imagine,” says the nurse, “imagine it was the other way round. You were lying there peacefully, basking in impossible happiness. Not knowing when the end was going to come, but being so content you didn’t care if it was two minutes or two months. Then imagine I come up to you and I say, even though you’ll never leave this room, even though you’ll never get up out of this bed, I can change the past to make your life full of achievements and successes. You’ll be remembered, for a relatively short amount of time, as one of those people who did very well for themselves. And you’ll have those memories yourself for however long you’ve got left. All I have to do to make this possible is take away your happiness and replace it with pain.” 

“But that’s different,” you say. “The things I achieved, I really did achieve them. I worked for them, I sacrificed for them. I…”

“How do you know?” says the nurse with a smile. “How do you know you did any of that? Right now, it’s just me and you and this room and this moment. Everything you think you’ve done in your life, it might all be a figment of your imagination. This might be the only moment you’ve ever lived. 

“And even if it is true, even if it really happened, why should you take the credit? When you feel the desire to do something, this is a desire that has arisen out of the complex mechanics of a brain you didn’t build, informed by genes you didn’t pick and an environment you had no option but to be born into. 

“Whatever you’ve supposedly achieved is the result of desires you didn’t ask for, circumstances that presented themselves, the assistance of other people and cognitive or physical abilities that happened to be present and in working order at the time. 

“Since the big bang, the atoms of the universe have been crashing into each other, coming apart, coming back together again in different variations and formations. For a moment, they create the part of the universe known as you, which itself is in a constant state of change, with atoms moving in and out of it. Sometimes their movements result in a goal, and sometimes in an accomplishment, but it’s all just the big continuing to bang.”

She goes to the window and pulls the curtains shut. The room disappears. You can’t see her or anything else. All you can feel is the pain, gnawing away at every atom in your body. You try and picture your successes, your high points in life, but all you can think about is saying yes. 

“No,” you say, “No. It can’t have all been for nothing. I won’t let it all be for nothing.” You did something. You achieved something on this earth. You can’t quite picture what it was, but you know it was real and you won’t give it up even if you have to endure this pain. You won’t let them wipe away your life. 

“No,” you say again, “No, no, no.”

There’s no reply in the darkness. All that remains is the pain as you lie there and accept it. As you make your final sacrifice. 

So there you lie, without complaint. With a smile on your face that no one will ever see. The last thing to leave you is a sense of pride. This, you realize, is the greatest thing you have ever done.

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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