Before I Die | The Story | What is Important to You?

Before I Die | The Story | What is Important to You?

Before I Die is a global art project that invites people to reflect on their lives and share their personal aspirations in public space. This project was started by Candy Chang on an abandoned house in New Orleans after she lost someone she loved. Learn more here. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and for­get what re­ally mat­ters to you. After I lost some­one I loved very much, I thought about death a lot. This helped clar­ify my life, the peo­ple I want to be with, and the things I want to do, but I strug­gled to main­tain per­spec­tive. I won­dered if other peo­ple felt the same way. So with help from old and new friends, I painted the side of an aban­doned house in my neigh­bor­hood in New Or­leans with chalk­board paint and sten­ciled it with a grid of the sen­tence “Be­fore I die I want to _______.” Any­one walk­ing by could pick up a piece of chalk, re­flect on their lives, and share their per­sonal as­pi­ra­tions in pub­lic space.

It was an ex­per­i­ment and I didn’t know what to ex­pect. By the next day, the wall was burst­ing with hand­writ­ten re­sponses and it kept grow­ing: Be­fore I die I want to… sing for mil­lions, hold her one more time, eat a salad with an alien, see my daugh­ter grad­u­ate, aban­don all in­se­cu­ri­ties, plant a tree, strad­dle the In­ter­na­tional Date Line, be com­pletely my­self…  Peo­ple’s re­sponses made me laugh out loud and they made me tear up. They con­soled me dur­ing my tough­est times. I un­der­stood my neigh­bors in new and en­light­en­ing ways, and the wall re­minded me that I’m not alone as I try to make sense of my life.

After re­ceiv­ing many re­quests, my friends and I cre­ated a toolkit and pro­ject site to help peo­ple make a wall with their com­mu­nity. You can also down­load all files for free to remix or cre­ate your own sten­cils. Thanks to pas­sion­ate peo­ple, over 250 Be­fore I Die walls have now been cre­ated in over 20 lan­guages and in over 50 coun­tries, in­clud­ing Kaza­khstan, Por­tu­gal, South Korea, Den­mark, Aus­tralia, Kenya, Ar­gentina, and South Africa. They have been a con­stant source of in­spi­ra­tion and ther­apy for me. Each wall is unique and re­flects the peo­ple of that com­mu­nity. Each wall is a trib­ute to liv­ing an ex­am­ined life.

Our pub­lic spaces are as pro­found as we allow them to be. The his­to­rian Lewis Mum­ford once wrote that the ori­gins of so­ci­ety were not just for phys­i­cal sur­vival but for sa­cred things that offer “a more valu­able and mean­ing­ful kind of life.” At their great­est, our pub­lic spaces can nour­ish our well-be­ing and help us see that we’re not alone as we try to make sense of our lives. Reg­u­larly con­tem­plat­ing death, as Sto­ics and other philoso­phers en­cour­age, is a pow­er­ful tool to re­store per­spec­tive and re­mind us of the things that make our lives mean­ing­ful. Each passerby is an­other per­son full of long­ing, anx­i­ety, fear, and won­der. With more ways to share in pub­lic space, the peo­ple around us can not only help us make bet­ter places, they can help us be­come our best selves.

Up­date Sept 22, 2011: After seven months, the first wall comes to a happy end: the house will be turned into a home again thanks to new own­ers. We painted over the wall and sten­ciled one last thing – some­thing Wen­dell Pierce said a few months ago that has stayed with Candy since: “Our thoughts are to the in­di­vid­ual as our art is to the com­mu­nity.” It was ready to go but from the ashes come more.