I’m reading the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and it’s fascinating. It’s about growing older, allowing people to maintain independence and dignity as they age, while giving opportunities to continue to live.
He’s done a crap ton of research and the stories he shares are captivating. My favorite so far is from a woman who had a near death experience at age 21. Before the car accident she had spent her time thinking about finding the right person to spend her life with and what she was going to do next in life. After the accident, her perspective changed to not caring about those things at all, she just wanted to spend more time with loved ones because she was so grateful to be alive.
She wondered if how we choose to spend our time depends on how much time we think we have left in life. So she did studies.
Her theory was that “When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire all that stuff at the top of Maslow’s pyramid- achievement, creativity…. But as your horizons contract- when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain- your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you.”
I watched this happen to my brother. My dad described him as “soft” the closer he came to the end of his life. And I think that is the best word for it. Little things that used to get him riled up, he barely flinched at, in fact, he took a couple opportunities to chastise my mom when we would get worked up over things. He waved his hand and told us, “It doesn’t matter” and “you need to let that go.”
On the anniversary of his death this year, I was laying in bed staring at the ceiling and talking out loud. It was part prayer, part thoughts. I was trying to determine what Justin had taught me that was the most valuable. And I realized it was this- this softness that my dad talked about. How could I learn to live like that?
I saw the shift in my uncle TJ too, as he realized the days he had were a gift, not a guarantee. Almost nothing ruffled him. It was the littlest things that made him the happiest. Spending time with people he loved was his favorite, and my brother’s too.
I feel like I get the spending time with people I love part, but I am terrible at the not letting little things (that truly don’t matter) irritate me part.
In the studies this woman did, she saw this shift in perspective based on people’s age. The younger ones valued time with people they thought could teach them something new and they valued building new relationships. The older ones valued time with people they were emotionally close to. And when they studied people who were sick with a terminal disease, whether they were young or old, they all responded the way of the older people. And to further verify her findings, when the older people in the study were told that a new development would allow them to live 20 extra years, they all shifted their responses to value the things of the younger people.
Then, they studied people in different cultures just after a big event occurred where lots of people died. For the US, it was following 9/11. “In each case the results were consistent. When, as researchers put it, “life’s fragility is primed,” people’s goals and motives in their everyday lives shift completely. It’s perspective, not age, that matters most.”
Death can have that effect on us as humans. For me, my brother’s death was a total wake up call and a shift in perspective. I realized that if he could die, anyone could. And yes, I realize how stupid this sounds because in reality- we will all die at some point. Side note: My uncle used to tell the story of the doctor telling him he was dying. He quickly quipped, “So are you!”
One thing my brother’s death did was normalize conversations about death. Andy asked me just a few weeks after my brother died, what I would do if he died. I told him I’d sell the house, I’d take a break from work to grieve and I’d probably travel. When I asked him the same question he had the same answers, plus he specified he’d visit my friends and ask them to tell him stories about me. I told him his idea was sweeter than mine and now I’d want to do that too, for him.
Once we acknowledged how easily one of us could die, it caused us to narrow in on some of our dreams and figure out what do we want to do before we die. But even more so, how do we want to live?
If I want to be a softer person who lets things go, doesn’t read into stuff, and learns not to fill in the blanks for things that may or may not be true– how do I practically start to do that now?
It’s a great question- and one I’ve been asking myself. I’ve been applying a “practice things until they become a habit” idea to a couple different areas of my life and I’m giving it a whirl in this one too. I remind myself it’s okay to be a work in progress. When I start to feel stress, anger, or frustration, there are things I can practice to help things bug me less, or (ideally) not at all!
Taking a minute to take a few deep breaths to focus on that instead of the issue is a good place to start. Resisting the urge to jump to conclusions (I can’t say this without thinking of Office Space) and read other people’s minds is a good place to start. Repeating “not my monkeys, not my circus” to remind myself that other people’s stuff is not my stuff- is a good place to start. Going on a walk outside in the fresh air to process while moving is a good place to start.
I don’t want to wait until I’m staring death in the face to be a softer person. It’s just going to take some practice.