Ask not ”What am I supposed to be DOING with my life?”
Rather ask “Who am I BEING in my life?”
I extracted these questions from a tremendously insightful Tampa Bay TEDx talk given by Kathleen Taylor eight years ago. She called her talk “Rethinking the Bucket List.” Earlier in her life, Kathleen had worked with Hospice for over a decade. She spoke of the people she helped to usher out of life who in turn prompted her to ask the right question:
When we are no longer defined by what we DO, then who ARE we?
In that last chapter of life, especially in what Kathleen called the “no-bullshit” final paragraphs of life, she says there’s often an unexpected compensation, a surprise reward for the pain and immobility at the end of life.
Many begin to find joy in the smallest things and become increasingly grateful for the people who love and care for them — including the ones who don’t know how to reflect it back. Many raise the flag of their love big and bold. Once one wakes up to the gift of that very next breath and truly owns how near the final breath is, there’s the potential to burst forth from the fog of daily doing and drama to a much more glowingly vibrant, clear, suddenly unencumbered reality — spring after an endless winter.
As Kathleen Taylor affirms, “Live Like You’re Dying” is not just a country song.
Not everyone is so fortunate to have the choice to arrive before departing. Time plays a factor. Does death come suddenly? Or is the last chapter so coated in pain and decline that awareness itself is compromised? Has there not been enough life lived, enough adversity overcome to earn a ticket to enlightenment?
My Dad was one of the lucky ones. He died well. During his final year, he knew — we all knew — that he was nearing the exit. When he came home from the hospital after a partial lung removal, the cancer was discovered to have progressed to his lymph system, and the prognosis for recovery was rescinded. There was no telling how long he might yet putter around his garden sharing his well-earned wisdom and pausing occasionally to shake his head over Mom’s combative spirit. We were told to expect a few months more.
Dad lasted longer than anyone thought — a full year, and he experienced almost no pain — and no despair or even mild depression. He came home hallowed in joy and peace. He laughed often and told us how much he loved us whenever he had the chance.
Like he’s standing here right now — over 30 years after he died — I can still see him gimp into the kitchen and say to me, tears shining but not falling, “Duncan just told me he loves me.” My son, Duncan was four at the time. Dad was, indeed, finding joy in the most immediate moment and expressing gratitude every chance he got. When he was being wheeled into a long-shot final surgery, he told my always intuitive younger brother, “I have the strangest feeling.” KC reached out to touch him and said, “Go with it, Dad.” Dad smiled and answered, “Oh, I will… I will.” He never woke up, but KC sensed that his last moments were full of trust and peace.
At the funeral, the family was astounded to discover what I believe was the source of this peace. It was a Wednesday mid-morning, and several family members were setting out flowers and a photo board in our small community church. We expected all of our family, and a few long-time neighbors to attend– maybe 30 people or so.
As I stood there frozen and speechless, people came flooding in — so many that they began to assemble up the hillside outside the wall of windows on one side of the church.
It started slowly at first. One of the surprise attendees who trickled in first asked if I was Ry’s daughter. I said, “Yes, I’m Susan,” and he handed me Dad’s 25-year Alcohol Anonymous pin. Turns out Dad had just missed this hallmark achievement and the ceremony to celebrate it. As I stood there frozen and speechless, people came flooding in — so many that they began to assemble up the hillside outside the wall of windows on one side of the church. Sleepy Hollow Church probably sat 200 people at full capacity. After Reverend Burris spoke, I stood up and tearfully told a couple of stories about Dad. Against the odds, my younger brother beat the family stoicism gene. He laughs with his whole soul and cries easily whether for joy or sympathy or pain. KC knew he’d choke up and asked a friend to read his tribute to our dad. My older brother Bob — a true gentle-man who, just like Dad, gives unstintingly — sat in the front pew quaking like he was about to burst apart.
Yes, we knew Dad had attended one or two AA meetings a week, never missing for over two decades, but we didn’t have the faintest clue about his profound legacy in a world totally separate from us. When no more friends or family indicated they wanted to speak, a man stood, walked to the front, stood at the pulpit, bowed his head, and began, “God, give me the serenity..” Like a thunderclap, well over a hundred voices joined in and boomed in perfect unison.
I felt like I needed ear protection, like a searing jolt of lightning got way too close, like I hadn’t really known my dad at all — or the large and lasting impact of his life.
What was revealed that day was one big piece in the puzzle of his peace.
The moral of the fable is to avoid allowing living awake to be the missing piece.
Thirteen years after he died, I dedicated a short poem to my Dad. The salient lines were, “He came home before he passed from here. He saw through before the mist lifted.” In his final year, he saw that who he had become was the true catalyst and not the result of his actions. His doing was hatched from his being, not the other way around. He came home to himself, and the ripples of living-from-the-inside-outward spread far and wide.
The question has been posed: Do we have to wait until we need help getting into bed or up from the toilet to start consciously being who we really are? Do we have to be in the process of leaving our exterior behind before we can graduate to a brighter, more present, and joyful interior plane of existence?
No — although evidence suggests that a fair amount of adversarial growth (hard life blows where you get back up) may be required for most of us to begin asking the right question.
“Who am I BEING in my life?”
This truth emerges for me: When rooted in who I’m being or becoming, what I should be doing with my life will evolve and expand much more organically and much more purposefully.
And I can’t help stacking up the evidence that if more of us put becoming better before doing more, this would be a kinder and more peaceful world. In the interests of Be-The-Change-You-Want-To-See, I’m praying for the serenity, the courage, and the wisdom to step out and consciously BE — which includes messing up over and over, and getting back up to go again.
Thanks to the final transformations of those who are dying, I have a new personal mandate: To ask myself the right question every day — and maybe several times a day when something causes stress to spike. To pause to reflect more. To do much less living on autopilot–robotically completing hoards of nearly meaningless tasks.
Living is not another activity to be checked off the bucket list. The bucket can just as easily be filled with who I want to become, as with what I want to do or have.
I believe — if I want greater certainty that I’ll die well like my dad — I have to live well every possible moment. Living well does not mean getting more done, but rather consciously becoming more — a greater resource, a stronger example of love freely given, a living legacy that is worthy to extend beyond my years here.
Essential truth: I don’t have to wait until I’m dying to wake up and aspire to be one of those lighthouse people in the dense and pervasive fog of mindless activity. No matter where we live in the world or how educated we are or aren’t, there are a few names that leap to mind of people who have blinded us by their clarity and purpose. I’m talking about those who shine bright and steady decades and even centuries after their lives ended. Maybe on a less publicized scale, but might it be safe to say that we’ve all met at least one exceptional person who has lit our paths when life was dark?
Oh, how I’d love to hear the story of one of these that you’ve known!
I think we all live most of our lives in a fog, Joanna. How strange that many of us learn gratitude for adversity. Beautiful sentence: “I never realized I got to chose, until choosing was my only choice.” Have you written that story? I’d love to read it.
What a beautiful share Susan!
There are so many nuggets of wisdom and cause for contemplation.
It is inside the business of life that we lose our purpose and our compass.
Only when we are mindful of the inevitable, there is freedom to live and love unapologetically and full court.
I feel like I know your Dad… through you. In your words, wisdom and grace. #becomingmore
“love …. full court” — I love this! And yes, I believe that’s where the true freedom is, and the path to becoming more.
Thank you so much for taking the time to add your always distinctive insights.
Susan: This beautifully written. As a writer myself, I tend to be a bit critical, and this was a pleasure to read. It’s obvious that you care for the written word as much as I do. It sounds like your father was a wonderful human being.
Thanks for sharing this.
Honored and humbled by your appreciation of my writing, Byron.
The rush I feel — and I suspect you feel too — when the absolute right word emerges pushes me irrevocably into the present. Is it that way for you, Byron?
Your story touched me, Susan, it is a worthy response to Dennis’ bucket list invitation.
I recognize my father in your story – having looked into that point of no return and stayed on this side for another 50 years, he had time to pass on the wisdom he gained from that experience. I think his only regret was that he had not learned to change a diaper before he got grandchildren.
I love your story about your father, Charlotte — especially the humor about the diaper changing learning curve!
My husband also faced an early demise, but was awarded a new heart four years ago. Lee lives in an almost continual state of gratitude, and almost everyone is drawn to his happy presence. I’m guessing your dad was/is magnetic in the same way?
Thank you for taking the time to appreciate, Charlotte.
What a beautiful memory and story. I’ve lived most of my life in a fog. It wasn’t until a life changing negative experience where I questioned all I knew. I took a deep dive and even asked the question – Who am I being in my life? Followed by – Who do I want to be?
I never realized I got to chose, until choosing was my only choice.
Thank you for sharing your dad’s story and the lessons you’ve uncovered. Life is short.