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Monday, August 25, 2008

Prognosis For Life: Exceptional

What if you went to the doctor for a regular check-up, and after all the tests came back, your doctor said to you, “There’s nothing wrong, although you have just 37 years left to live”? Would that change your outlook? Would you start doing anything differently?

Steven Wright said a friend of his knows when he’s going to die because his friend’s birth certificate has an expiration date on it. Consider the ramifications.

Let’s compare this to if you had one year left to live, due to a known condition in which you were told you’d be mostly healthy for that duration. While having 30-something years left to live still requires the day-to-day grind of the mundane which might not be present in knowing that you had one year left, shouldn’t your attitude really be the same regardless of how much time you have left — or think you have left? After all, any of us here could be gone at any time in the next few years due to accidents or sudden health problems. We never know when it’s our time. Grover Washington Jr. says in his song that “Good things might come for those who wait, but not for those who wait too late… we gotta go for all we know.” Yeah, those castles in the sky are ready to be built now, not in some far-off future.

Even if we knew for certainty that we were going to live to be 90, why should we live life with any lesser amount of zest? If having less time would change the way you live, then I would offer that perhaps you are not living correctly. It seems as though we should all live as if the time was shorter than we expected. As such, then we should not perpetually save things for rainy days, which often don’t come. We should not wait for the perfect moment before grabbing life by the horns. We should embrace it now with every ounce of passion that’s in us.

I hear time and again from people who have lost loved ones that we should all tell those close to us how much we love them. You should tell those people you care about most how you feel about them, and continually reinforce that. If you have children, spend a lot of time with them, as well as your spouse. Childhood is very brief, and brings children lasting memories as well as great opportunities for growth. Note that you can have all these enhancements while still going on with the regular, drab, marathon life that seems to get in the way so much. Yes, it’s idealistic of me to say so from the antiseptic comfort of my keyboard, but isn’t it an ideal worth pursuing?

I would submit that if you knew you had only one year left to live, your outlook on life would change dramatically. And why is that? I don't think it has so much to do with the day-to-day planning aspects, but rather with how we would view things in life. Suddenly, many things that were nagging us would become trivial. They would no longer matter. So why many times does it take a loved one dying or your own imminent fate to wake you up to this? Why is that? This is very curious, from a psychological standpoint.

Why should a 37-year plan differ in principle from a 1-year plan? In practice, sure, but the way you approach it... ought it not be at that same heightened level regardless of the time involved? If you’re holding back now, what is the reason? To pace yourself? Or is it something else? Are you stalling? Are you waiting for that epiphany to come? I would submit that having 40 or so years to live isn't that long of a time either. It may look like it when you're in your 20s, but that changes awfully fast. If you're not careful, you'll be looking back asking "where did the time go?" as well as "why didn't I do more of the things that matter most?"

I've heard that people who have narrowly escaped death have been transformed this way. They no longer take things for granted that they once did. They look at the rest of their life as a blessing to be cherished and utilized to the fullest extent. They have a fresh perspective that our time on earth is not to be squandered and that life is infinitely precious.

What if we could have their perspective? How would that alter the way we look at things? I’ve started looking at each day not as something to “get through,” but rather as a bonus. Life doesn’t owe us anything, but we owe it to ourselves and those around us to put the most into our lives.

Wisdom would therefore dictate:
• Don't let the little things drag you down.
• Don't let someone else's poor attitude affect your own.
• Don't take so many things personally.
• Don't waste a lot of time on frivolous pursuits.
• Spend a lot of time with those you care about most.
• Enjoy life!

How do we get out of that rut on our own, without having to wait for a smack in the face from fate? It might just be common human nature to not be convinced until we’re forced to. Sometimes that’s the only way we allow ourselves to truly learn. But if you want to do it on your own, you can. If the desire is there — and I believe that's the key.

So the next time you have a birthday, I hope you can look at getting older as a blessing. And even on those days when you’re worn out physically and/or mentally, look ahead to brighter ones. Share in the joy of others. There’s always somebody who’s happy somewhere, so find them and borrow some of that joy, and revel in theirs as well. There’s plenty to go around.

I’ve continually said that it’s always good to be alive, and sometimes even good to be awake. Life isn’t perfect, or even symmetrical. It has a full complement of disappointments and unfulfilled dreams. You have to constantly clean things, like dishes, clothes, rooms, floors, yards. Possibly a metaphor for life. But somewhere in there amidst the heartache and struggles are the finer things in life that keep us getting up in the morning and putting in the daily grind. I’ve felt that our responsibility is to keep making life better with each passing day. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but just continually improving. Whatever we can each offer to the concoction, put your ingredients into the mix.

Interested in your thoughts on this as well. I’m a doctor, Jim, not a motivational speaker.

I’ll close with the words to the haunting and ethereal 1982 Gerry Rafferty ballad, “The Right Moment,” that went under the hit list radar, perhaps because it was too thought-provoking and nuanced. (sing it slow and deliberate)

Spinning on another wheel
Goin’ round in slow motion…
Caught up in another dream
Driftin’ on a blue ocean…

When are you gonna reach out
Only you can turn your world around
When will you surrender
And wake up to the real

But you don’t want to start out just yet
You watch the seasons come and go
You remember and then you forget
All along the way

You can make a better life
You’re just waitin’ for the right moment…
You can find another way
You’re just waitin’ for the right moment…

When are you gonna let go
And forget about the life you knew
When will you surrender
And wake up to the real

Now you know that it’s all borrowed time
And still you waste another day
But you watch and you wait for a sign
All along the way…

4 comments:

Keep on Dancing... said...

I've been thinking a lot about life lately and this sums it all up right here (thanks for that). I don't want to wait for a cancer diagnosis to motivate me to change my life. I feel as though I am changing my perspective slowly but naturally and I am happy about that.

I've been recently criticized at work for not working towards goals. I have so many goals in life. Just not at work. I don't think it's a bad thing. I am happy at work - I like to go there, do my thing and leave - to live my life. Work to live, not live to work. If I am happy with that - happy to reach for my goals outside of an office desk - why is that so bad?

I wish someone would talk to my boss about this. Are you up for it? lol.

Natasha said...

Ha! That's my friend Sara commenting just there. And the funny thing is, after I was reading your last post, I thought, Sara would find this really funny. It's totally her sense of humour.

Sara, maybe not having enough goals at work says something more about work than about YOU.

My favourite bit here, Rusty, was: Life isn’t perfect, or even symmetrical. It has a full complement of disappointments and unfulfilled dreams. You have to constantly clean things, like dishes, clothes, rooms, floors, yards. Possibly a metaphor for life. But somewhere in there amidst the heartache and struggles are the finer things in life that keep us getting up in the morning and putting in the daily grind. I’ve felt that our responsibility is to keep making life better with each passing day. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but just continually improving. Whatever we can each offer to the concoction, put your ingredients into the mix.

First, I thought it was funny that you said cleaning, etc. was perhaps a metaphor for life because, from my perspective, it's a large part OF my life. It IS life.

It's true: Life is not symmetrical. I've always admired that about her.

I like the line about adding our ingredients to the mix. I may use it later. Don't get all Webster's Dictionary on me. I have no money.

Jen said...

"Don't waste a lot of time on frivolous pursuits."

My family was in this huge car accident this past Christmas and this thought is what, I think, weighs on me the most since that night. Raising 4 kiddos and being in college, my temptation is to quit college in favor of grabbing some no-brain part time job that pays the few bills I have and requires no real investment on my part...a job that I won't 'bring home' with me each night. Being in college is a really busy time for me and I find I put the kids off more than I want to. What I have decided (and hope) to do instead is wake up extra early and try my hand at some excellent time management. Because I think the 'easy, part-time job' idea is a lie, and that it would actually steal a lot more time than I think.
Also - having a year left to live would be huge and I think I could picture myself scurrying around making all kinds of arrangements for my kids and possibly being an emotional mess/while trying to hold it together for them because I was leaving. Then again, I never could have pictured myself climbing 150 feet up an embankment with a fractured wrist while my family lay at the bottom in our overturned van with my husband several feet away with a broken back!
So, yes, this is something I really think about. We do still need to work and we can't throw it all out in favor of spending every minute with the people we love...BUT...we can probably manage our time in such a way that it reflects what we truly care about. We don't have to watch TV for one thing! And it's good for my kids to see me work hard...
Well, I'm just rambling here because I am staying up way to late, which is totally throwing off my new wake-up-early plan. And because school starts in 2 days for all of us and all my heart really wants to do is stay home, work in the the yard and on the house, and enjoy every single minute with my family that I can (with no biology homework to get in the way). I'm convinced there's got to be a way - an attitude - that makes it possible to enjoy all of this and even include the family in that enjoyment.
Nice to 'meet' you and I hope you didn't mind the gigantic, rambl-y comment!
Jen

Rusty Southwick said...

Thanks for that perspective, Jen. You said a mouthful. Not rambly at all.

We do still need to work and we can't throw it all out in favor of spending every minute with the people we love...BUT...we can probably manage our time in such a way that it reflects what we truly care about.

Very true. I guess it's all about maintaining that balance. On that last part, I've always thought that what people state as their priorities is belied by how much time they devote to various things, where the truth really comes out. In other words, if something were really a high priority, we would be treating it as such instead of watching twenty hours of TV a week. TV can have its place, but it's also easy to overdose on it.

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