What Really Matters

For many of us, on-going discontent and frustration in one or several areas of our lives seems to be just the way it is, the only discernible option. We may wish for other things, but believe actually getting to those places is out of reach. After a time, discontent and frustration may turn to resignation, especially when we are consistently living in a way that is not congruent with what we value. Life can then take on a shade of gray, and before we know it our time is gone.

While browsing through a New Yorker magazine recently, I found myself chuckling at one of the cartoons. It was both humorous and uncomfortable at the same time. The cartoonist had drawn a picture of a large cemetery. At the foreground was a prominently displayed headstone with the name and dates of birth and death of the deceased. Underneath, engraved in the marble, were the words: “WHY ME.”

A closer look revealed that the humor was not just the continuing nature of the deceased’s denial but that a part of me identified. Certainly at an emotional level our own demise is hard to grasp. Yet, what irony that the fact of human life that is the most certain is the one about which there is the greatest avoidance. After all, we are all going to die – some tomorrow, some the next day and some later. Yet the prospect seems so distant, so remote and so frightening that we refuse to acknowledge it, except at the most superficial level. And even if we did, how would this change things? We can’t do anything about dying, it’s going to happen. Why consider it? Why even think about it? What good would it do?

To help answer these questions, we can turn to a group of people given the opportunity to live these questions in a way most of us have not – intensely, in their faces, and with denial made more difficult. What characterizes the members of this group is a medical prognosis that speculates their demise in three months, six months, one year or more, whatever time it is they have left. Such a prognosis can bring with it a sense of urgency. The urgency is not about dying, it is about living. In such a circumstance a person’s life can come into sharp focus. How has it been for me? Have I been who I wanted? Have I done what I wanted?

Perhaps also asked and considered for the first time are other questions: What touches me? What are my deepest callings? What do I value most? For many reasons, we rarely allow ourselves to live these questions or we do so only fleetingly, believing there is ample time to take action. For those who are actively dying and do not have the luxury of time, the thought that there is plenty of time left is not an option. These questions are drawn to the forefront and become a necessity rather than an uncomfortable annoyance.

If we were told our time here was more defined, more limited than we had hoped, some of us might choose to ask these kinds of questions of our work as lawyers and judges. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, and a closer look at our days at work can tell us much about our lives. Consider the following:

Does my work serve my life, or is it the other way around? Is this the way I want it? Is my life at work and at home of a whole piece, are the two integrated, however different? Or, am I someone else in each place, one a stranger to the other? What is the quality of my relationships? Do my daily interactions with others reflect what I value? Am I living in balance? What does this mean and how is it accomplished? Does my life reflect my deepest callings, whether related to family, occupation, avocation, community or spiritual/religious pursuits?

As these questions are asked, others necessarily accompany them: Is our circumstance really any different from the person who has six months or a year to live? Do we know how much is time is left for us as we move through life acting as if this commodity were limitless? What personal blocks and barriers do we use to avoid living in a way that reflects what we value most? And finally, do we truly comprehend that the only difference between us and those with medically-defined life spans is that no one has told us how long we have here. There the difference stops! While certainly this lack of knowledge is a blessing in the obvious respects, the curse is that without it the power of avoidance allows us to deny the urgency of doing now what really matters to us – not waiting until later.