Not Dead Yet
"God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well." (Voltaire)
No matter how hard I try to convince myself that I have cancer, I cannot get a doctor to agree with me. I almost got one last summer, but it was some weird mix up with blood and a lab and some big words. I did get to hear a guy in a white coat say the words, "Pre-cancerous activity" -- and, of course, that was all my inner hypochondriac needed to feel vindicated!
Still, I am not dead yet. And, until I am, I have decided to be fully alive. I am not content any more to merely continue breathing; I want to really live the adventure that life can be. And it started with a list.
One morning after the doctors had tried unsuccessfully to execute a trans-nasal endoscopy I slumped into the chair in my office and pulled out a yellow legal pad. At the top, I wrote the words "The List" and proceeded to write anything and everything that came to mind about what made life so amazing and so worth living. Before I knew it, my list was long -- like more than 100 things.
When I went back to read what I had written, a few things stood out. First, food was everywhere. Gary Chu's Martini Prawns from Osake in Santa Rosa, CA. The Wiseguy at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, AZ. A double-double from In-n-Out. The chopped pork sandwich served Pittsburgh Style at 'Cue right near my house. Really good sushi. Fresh pineapple. Cheese. The fact that "cheese" made the list before "mom" is probably something I should talk with my therapist about, but food was everywhere on my list of things that make life awesome.
Don't get me wrong, the people in my life certainly showed up. Parents. My sister. Cousins. Aunts. Uncles. Friends. Mentors. Colleagues. Partners in crime. Names filled the list.
But what surprised me most was how much of the list contained simple things:
- Autumn leaves
- The sound of Miles Davis' trumpet on "Kind of Blue"
- The smell of a fire
- A well-written sentence
- Skinny dipping
- Sunsets at the beach
- A good conversation
In our constant desire to reach the next plateau, my list seemed quiet. Staring what I thought could be death in the eye, I wasn't worried about getting a bigger house, more money, or a more impressive job title. I longed for simple, everyday things with the people I love.
Of course, this revelation is hardly extraordinary. Since the beginning of time, wise people have known the virtue of living in the now and appreciating the little things. Buddhists speak of Right Mindfulness: the practice of being present and paying attention to the situation at hand.
The Greek poet Horace reminded us to carpe diem -- seize the day and pay no mind to the uncertainty of tomorrow.
Jesus suggested we could all learn a lesson by observing how the birds and the flowers do not worry and yet flourish and thrive.
Thoreau wanted to "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life". He said, "You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment."
Even 900-year-old Yoda scolded young Master Luke for having his head in the clouds. “All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon,” the Jedi Master scolded. “Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph.”
Ironically, all that ancient wisdom is being backed up with a growing body of modern research. For example, Harvard University developed an iPhone app to track the happiness levels of its participants at random intervals. The volunteers would reply with information about what they had just been focused on and how happy they felt.
The results? People are happiest when they are simply living in the moment and focused on what they are doing.
Other research shows that learning to savor small, positive moments can significantly increase your happiness and that people who foster an “attitude of gratitude” for everyday activities sleep better, are in better physical health, and have lower stress levels.
Whether it’s fantasizing about the weekend, rehashing an argument you had last week, or burying your head in your iPhone, it’s easy to find ourselves everywhere but the here and now.
Furthermore, in our future-obsessed culture, we tend to look at achievements down the road as the key to ultimate fulfillment.
- I'll be happy when I get married.
- I'll be happy when I make $100,000
- I'll be happy when I have 10,000 fans on Facebook
We're so preoccupied with the destination that we forget about the joy in the journey, the adventure of getting there.
I know. I know. Goals are important. They inspire us to be better, to try harder, to reach new heights.
But there's a lot of joy and satisfaction to be found in the simple things. Embracing that may be the best way to find happiness on a regular basis.
That's easier said than done. Trust me. I know. I caught myself obsessing over this article while I should have been enjoying time with my parents and my oldest daughter. But I'm getting better.
I'm on a journey -- sometimes I think it's a Homeric odyssey; other times I think it's more Abrahamic. And while it's been a difficult year since I wrote my list, it's been an enlightening one as well. I've learned not to pin my hopes for happiness on something just over the next horizon. I'm learning to live in the right now and embrace the simple pleasures like coffee and toast with strawberry jam.
I'm not dead yet. Until I am, I intend to live.
Photo Credit: Julia Caesar