As the years keep silently slipping by, I begin to realize that with three quarters of a century of life under my belt, I am beginning to qualify as an ‘elder’. For this reason I was interested to read about a project undertaken by one John Izzo, a psychologist, recorded in his book The Five Secrets you must Discover before you Die.

Izzo identified some thousand people over the age of sixty, who were named by those who knew them to be people who had achieved satisfaction and fulfillment in their lives. His aim was to see what common elements of attitude and philosophy they shared, and their feelings relating to their own mortality.

Having put together a list of a thousand prospects he pared this down into a short list of two hundred and fifty, of which fifty were then interviewed in detail. These came from a variety of backgrounds—Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, even atheist. He was able to boil down their philosophies of life into just five simple rules—all of which can be found in the Sermon on the Mount:

  1. To thine own self be true. All of us are unique: only we ourselves know our inmost feelings. To live a life constrained by what another thinks is right for us is a recipe for frustration and misery.
  2. Never let your life be controlled by fear. “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest is this—‘It might have been’.” Take that risk when your heart tells you that a new course is the right thing to do.
  3. Love. Love is not a feeling, it is a decision as to how we behave towards ourselves, our fellows, and ultimately, the whole world that we live in. To miss love is to miss life.
  4. Live in the moment. Yesterday is past: it cannot be changed. Tomorrow is in the future, and cannot be controlled. Only the NOW is real. Savour it and live in it.
  5. Give more than you take. Each of us has been put into this world to make a difference. Finding one’s talent and using it for the good of others is a source of joy beyond anything that comes from wealth, power or possessions.

Two reflections come from this train of investigation. The first, that those who fulfill these five requirements are not particularly worried about death. When it comes, they will know that “They have fulfilled the work that they were given to do.”

Secondly, that this attitude is not confined solely to those who profess some orthodox faith, but rather is shared by all who have, knowingly or not, followed these rules in the way they have chosen to live. God may surprise some devoted church attenders by saying to them “I never knew you.” Equally, others may be surprised to be welcomed into heaven, whose lives have reflected the Sermon on the Mount, even though they knew little or nothing about its author.

And as we continue to meet each month over a lunch initiated by our late colleague Basil Barnes, I cannot help but feel that he was a person who knew these secrets, and followed them.

– Gemini, April 2009