What’s the very first thing you think about when you wake up?
Coffee? What time it is? The number of days before your next vacation? Whether you need to bring a sweater with you? If today is the day you’ll meet the one?
I think about death. Every day.
I don’t worry that I’ll get cancer. I don’t think about how my days are rapidly dwindling. I think about death by pondering how I’d want to spend my last hours on this earth. That might sound morbid but it isn’t. Not really.
Most people are terrified to think of death. They prefer to turn away from it. Not me. Thinking about what I would do if I only had today doesn’t make me sad, it focuses me.
In that groggy first hour of the day I think, “What if today were my last? How would I want to spend the day?” It rarely looks like indulging in hedonistic activities like stuffing my face with ice cream, going on shopping sprees or doing a bungee jump. I don’t spend it shoving cupcakes in my mouth because though my taste buds love them, the rest of my body doesn’t and I wouldn’t want to spend my last day in the bathroom. I haven’t run off to Tahiti with just a bathing suit, a sarong and pile of delicious books. No, how I’d spend that day most often looks like small things. Tending to my fledgling urban balcony garden, being kind to others and most often, spending the day with my work, the thing I want to leave behind.
One day it was a difficult apology email to a former friend who I’d deeply disappointed with my selfish behavior years before. Yesterday it was writing an honest article about what it’s like to live with chronic illness. Today it was just simply the intention to let go of all the little slights that happen during the course of daily life. The person who pushed past me to grab the last seat on the subway. Worrying about why the friend I miss so dearly no longer seems to have time for me or our friendship.
Waking up thinking about death focuses me. It even energizes me.
It wasn’t always this way. I spent entire rotations around the sun consumed with what others thought about me. Trying to be overly nice when frankly the person was acting creepy or selfish. I worried about having the latest gadgets. I worried what would happen if I took a tour off the company track to follow my own path. I deleted long, deeply introspective and raw essays, afraid I’d lose all my friends or worse—my reputation. I didn’t ask for help, worrying that I’d appear weak or incompetent. Instead of asking for my real value to clients, I’d ask for what I thought I could get. I dated people who didn’t understand me, tolerating me at best. I dated someone who threatened to kill me one Christmas Eve. He threatened to cut me up into little pieces and bury me. Instead of leaving immediately, I stayed for two weeks before kicking him out. I let former bosses shame me when I didn’t meet their unrealistic expectations. I allowed clients to convince me to do my work their way, even though I knew it wouldn’t work.
I wasted a whole bunch of time.
I’ve almost died three times. The first when I was just six months old. The second, at 21 during risky surgery where there was a chance of paralysis or of death. The third time I was in the cardiac ICU. I knew I was dying.
I lay dying at 27, on a gurney, covered in stark white sheets. Lights flashing, buzzers ringing. Medical equipment flat lining. My mother, quickly escorted from the room. Crash carts assembled. People rushed all around me. The world slowed as I struggled to breathe. As my heart struggled to pump. An oxygen mask, strapped to my face. I remember thinking, if the doctor doesn’t get here in five minutes I’ll be dead. The idea didn’t terrify me. I was calm. Maybe even the calmest person in that ICU room. Let me go or give me the strength to fight, I whispered into the void. It was the first time I knew I was fragile. Mortal. That I would die one day. Maybe even today.
Somehow, I survived the crash of all my vital signs and then cardiac surgery.
You’d think this was a life changing event.
That it was that wake up call we all secretly hope for. I wish I could tell you it was an awakening. But it wasn’t. I simply went back to worrying about what other people thought, being oblivious to the needs of others, just trying to get through the day. A small kernel of awareness lodged back in the recesses of my mind but it would take a long time for it to seep into my daily life.
I’d love to say that one day I woke up and it all just suddenly changed. That I stopped with all the distractions and began the business of really living. But real life isn’t like the movies. It started with small changes like letting go of a grudge. I stopped trying to be a morning person. I stopped trying to be the kind of person who has a perfect body. I stopped giving a a f*ck what acquaintances and strangers thought of me. What just about anyone thought of me. I allowed myself to fall into messy love with someone.
I took a chances to write my real opinion instead of being diplomatic. I stopped being safe. I took risks. I stopped taking things for granted. I stopped making my perspective the right one, the only one. I began to have compassion when a friend or even a stranger were having a bad day. Instead of binge-watching another episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt I pulled out my camera and wandered around my neighborhood practicing my photography skills. I stopped worrying whether I appear too earnest. I let my assistant take over more business tasks so that I could finally write down the framework I’d been working on in my head for the past 10 years. I stopped trying to having amazing weekends that I could tell others about. Instead I simply had the one I really wanted—at home with my partner, reading, learning to cook and working on projects that really mattered to me.
Since I started thinking about death every day my to do lists have shortened. My stress reduced. My regrets fewer. I stopped counting who took the garbage out last and started emptying it when it threatened to overflow onto the floor.
The number of days I have on this earth have grown ever shorter. And yet, my happiness has grown.
An amazing life looks like today. It looks like making pesto for dinner for the first time with your partner and then cleaning up the dog’s barf after she’s eaten too many scraps from the floor. It’s about putting your phone down and putting your hands in some dirt so some basil seedlings can have a chance at life. It’s about putting the remote down and working on the idea in your head that just won’t let you go.
As Lin Manuel Miranda deftly articulates:
“You could go at anytime. And those ideas, those big ideas you have in your head, will stay locked in your head. They will go with you unless you get them out in the world…Nothing's promised. Tomorrow’s not promised."
Listen, I’m not any better than you. I’m just some a**hole still trying to figure things out. Sometimes I’m impatient. Sometimes I take my frustration out on my partner. I didn't resubmit an essay even though I was strongly encouraged to do so by the well-respected publication. I worry too much about doing right by my clients who I absolutely adore. I have bad days when I want to just stay in bed all day — and so I do sometimes. I spent a particularly bad winter cuddled up by the fireplace watching the movies Timeline over and over again.
But no matter how the day has gone, I always leave space in my day to reflect upon my actions, taking mental note of messes I need to clean up or attitudes I need to drop. I treat every day as if this is the one. The one day that I have. Then I get to work on imbuing this day with meaning. I remember that I can make a choice.
What are you waiting for?
Are you waiting to turn 50, flip the switch on the mid-life crisis and do what you really want to do? Are you waiting for someone to forgive you? Are you waiting for someone to apologize for their atrocious behavior? Are you waiting for legitimacy to do what you really want? Are you waiting for something to change before you stop ending every night with a drink in your hand? Are you waiting for someone to show up with a handful of money and your dream job? Why are you waiting?
This is what I think about every day.
Thank you to Tobias Van Schneider whose weekly email encouraged me to just write and publish this post without caring about the outcome or thinking about it too much.