We all live in a world inside our own head. There’s the world we allow others in to see – what we say out loud and share willingly. And then there’s the ceaseless running narrative within our own minds which we are more than cognizant of during waking hours, but which continues on even in our slumber. Sometimes it’s those odd, strange, random thoughts that pop into our consciousness on the way to work, at the grocery, or during any of a hundred moments of daily repose that are most meaningful.
It’s probably been close to 10 years since I heard about a tragic event. A well-liked physician had a cardiac event while driving resulting in a horrible and fatal accident. He was my age at the time. A tragedy is a tragedy. Death is nearly always sad (I’ll explain the ‘nearly’ another time), but this particular death struck a resonating chord in me. I’m a nurse and like all nurses I know death is inevitable. Death is universal. Death is, more than anything else, natural. But death is also random, unpredictable, and unknowable. It’s the tornado that skips that neighborhood, that street, those homes, and levels yours. We rarely see it coming.
But the thoughts this physician’s death kindled in my mind, and to which I have returned to many times, aren’t about death. I’ll confess, there’s a thread of nihilism that runs through my belief system. I don’t find inherent meaning in death. I experienced, up close and personal, the death of both of my parents. I had the good fortune to know it was coming, the luxury of being able as best I could to say my goodbyes, and they theirs, and to make sure they knew what they had meant to me. But I’m not sure I found anything but loss in their passing. It was the suddenness and shock of the physician’s death – this one human’s departure that grabbed my attention and stuck with me.
It’s the ultimate cliché. ‘Live every day as if it is your last’. That sophomoric credo may be a wonderful sentiment, but it’s the spiritual equivalent of going on a diet to lose weight. It sounds good, it feels right, but we all know, it’s like climbing Everest to sustain. I know it’s a cliché and yet I also embrace the sentiment behind it. Today will be someone’s last day. We all have that last day. And very often, we have no idea that day the great Morgan Freeman in one of my favorite movies ‘Glory’ called ‘that great getting-up morning’, is today.
But what if we did know? What if we knew exactly, precisely when the milk was going to expire, when the final bill was due, the date of our earthly ‘retirement’? Would it change anything? This is the question I return to periodically, that this physician’s death sparked in my mind. It feels like an important question, one I should know the answer to, and that I should be answering every day of my life by my actions, priorities, and focus.
This isn’t about ‘regrets’. I don’t believe in regrets. We make the decisions, take the actions, and follow the paths we willfully choose in life. Don’t want regrets at the end of the race? Live your life thoughtfully and intentionally. Have a plan. Know who you are and what matters and try and act accordingly. Regrets are for suckers.
No, I think what moved me by this physician’s death was the question – what would I do differently if I knew the answer to the ultimate question, ‘When?’
My wife is the loveliest human I’ve met so far. She has the most amazing life philosophy. ‘Wherever you go, there you are’. She doesn’t believe in ‘adventures’, ‘epic moments’, or grand plans – for her, every moment of every day has meaning and importance. She doesn’t believe I ‘get’ this, but I do. On our kitchen refrigerator is a clipping with a Tennessee Williams quote that explains her worldview perfectly. ‘Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you can hardly catch it going.’ You could hold a gun to my wife’s head, and she would still be incapable of creating a ‘bucket list’. Every moment of every day would make the list, each equally important and meaningful. I admire her view of life so much while at the same time feeling utterly unable to fully embrace it.
I’ve never written a ‘bucket list’. In some ways, I think I’m afraid to. I remember as a kid, living in mortal fear (unlike my siblings who grew up damn near perfect) of my report card arriving in our mailbox. Creating a list of life ‘must do’s’ that I’ll be graded on upon my demise is somewhat mortifying. And yet, I do have the urge to examine and redefine my life periodically, to invest energy in the question ‘am I making the most of my precious and finite time?’
Thoreau, the magnificent bastard, said it better than anyone else ever could in ‘Walden’:
‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…’
On our own great getting-up morning, what more could any of us hope for other than to have ‘lived deep’ and sucked out all the ‘marrow of life’? What greater tragedy than to have found that we ‘had not lived’? The challenge of this lofty goal, of crossing the finish line content and fulfilled, or as Charlie Sheen would say, ‘winning’, is that we know not how long the race is. We might find ourselves hitting that tape on any given day.
If it’s tomorrow, what does a life worth living look like for me? That’s the question the great doctor’s death burned into my brain.
I have some ideas.
A wonderful husband?
A great father who helped raise two confident, capable, wonderful kids?
A loving brother to two of the most important people in my life, my brother and sister?
An important and influential person in the lives of all my extended family members?
A giving and caring friend to my non-genetic family?
Generous in every sense of the word to my fellow humans?
Experience the world at every opportunity?
Live in the moment, celebrating ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’ or walk right past it unaware?
Make clear to those I loved, at every opportunity, that they were the ‘meaning’ in my life?
Make a difference to the people who knew me?
Create adventure and joy for myself and those I loved?
Live fully, lovingly, and meaningfully?
That’s my nebulously vague bucket list. I have no plans to skydive, swim with the dolphins, or climb Kilimanjaro. But as I’ve thought about the sudden departure of my physician acquaintance over the years, I’ve at least formed a vision of what a meaningful life for me looks like. I’m not there yet.
But I’m working on it.