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You Have Five Minutes. . .

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On January 28, 1986, Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik and Sharon Christa McAuliffe were killed when the Challenger shuttle mission failed. We know that part.

What’s not commonly known is how quickly – really how slowly – they died. According to news reports, after the initial explosion, the rockets were still working so the shuttle cabin continued to climb. Then it began its tragic, downward descent into the ocean.

The drop could have taken as long as five minutes.So consider: what was going through the astronauts’ minds during those five minutes?

This inspired a Rabbi’s sermon a few months later, with a profound message:

Like the astronauts, if we knew death was certain and it would happen in as little as five minutes, what would we think of? What would go through our minds?

That’s frightening. Five minutes. Not very long at all.

The astronauts had nothing to do except wait. No emergency procedures. No buttons to push. No parachutes to release. Just living with the certain knowledge of what was about to happen. Sort of like that moment when you know that truck is about to smash headfirst straight into you.

So what would you think of?

Let’s skip over the emotional responses and go to the practical.

In that moment — or in those five minutes — you’re not going to whip together that revision to your will that you’ve been thinking about.

You’re not going to change, much less even remember, whom you put down as the primary beneficiary on your 401(k) or IRA all those years ago, much less who your backup beneficiaries are. (And now you’re not going to have time to consider if that beneficiary would be a really bad idea now, given what’s gone on in your life, and in theirs.)

You certainly don’t have time to write something to deal with your children’s spouses. When you signed those old papers, your children were youngsters and grandchildren weren’t even a dream.

And did you ever make that change to the title on your real estate (or do you remember how it’s really titled, since the closing papers from that last refinance did something . . . hmmm, where are those papers anyway?).

But hey, you’ve got five minutes – or are we down to four? Let’s see. The company, your consulting operation, the practice, did you ever put that group together to keep things going if you’re not around? Even if you’ve been a one-person operation, or a shrinking one, your receivables are collectable, right? The phone number your customers and clients call – it’s got value, too, because someone – even a competitor – would be delighted to answer the incoming calls.

Or what papers will reassure the employees that the business can continue, especially since you’ve used noncompetition agreements and protections for your trademarks, your website, your other intellectual assets? Or did you not get around to it? Well, there’s 120 seconds left . . .

. . . and what have you written down for your loved ones? It’s a little late, but are there any thoughts and feelings you’d like to leave them with?

You get the idea.

So when will you know that you have only five minutes left? You don’t. So why push your luck, and don’t be an ostrich. As that Rabbi challenged his congregation, “You’ve got today.” Or maybe as little as five minutes.

* * *

A sad postscript: three years after the Challenger and the sermon, the Rabbi and his family were on a flight, returning home from a vacation. The tail engine exploded, crippling the controls. The plane burst into flames as it landed. The Rabbi and his wife were killed.

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