Most of us operate under the assumption that there will always be a tomorrow, that there will always be another chance to buckle down and get serious about the business of living our lives to the best of our ability. We live as if we are immortal, and while that may be true in the broadest view of life, for practical purposes, all we can act upon is the limited lifespan that we are living now.
The man or woman who faces the reality, the inevitability, and the unpredictability of his or her own death enhances the quality of their life, for that person tends to make better choices about how to live. They use their mortality as a measuring stick to keep from wasting time or energy on things that truly do not matter to them.
Any person who has learned to hold his mortality close to his heart knows that today could very well be the last day of his life. The aged and very ill, those who are facing a short road to the end, are forced to accept this because it is in their face, but I believe that it would behoove all of us to use the overhanging shadow of our mortality to better our lives.
I am not special or different from any other citizen of this earth. I am not gifted with the ability to see into my future and know exactly how many days I have to accomplish all that I would like. Like everyone else, I have squandered precious moments, hours, and days that have added up to many, many years because I couldn't accept the one great truth about my existence--that today could be the last day of my life.
I have lived my life in the same way as the majority of humans running around our planet. I have scurried from one life event to another. I have committed myself to actions that deep down I honestly didn't want to do, but that I felt obligated to perform because that's what society, family, or friends expected of me: go to school, college, grad school, work a job, date, marry, buy a house, have children, the list went on and on.
I was guilty of compounding the issue by idling away precious hours on blatant time wasters--just how many reruns of the same episode of my favorite television show could I watch? How many times could I meet the same people at the same bar and rehash the same tired issues?
I never questioned whether the choices I made were the wisest, most fulfilling use of my time because I was sure that I had all the time in the world. I believed that there would always be time to do everything that I wished, that there would always be a tomorrow.
Along the way, life gave me many hints and opportunities to help me lose my sense of immortality.
I ignored them.
When, at sixteen, a freak accident cost a fellow high school student his life, it caused barely a blip in my consciousness. Years later, when my beloved grandfather passed and my best friend's mother died, I felt sadness but still I made no changes. Mortality did not factor into my life even though I read daily news stories about young people dying from illness or accident or homicide.
Those events made me pause briefly and feel grateful for my continued good health, but they went no deeper than that. Death happened to other people--it wasn't something that I needed to worry about. I was young and healthy and completely caught up in living my life--caught up in the challenges and petty grievances and soap operas that seem to consume us all. I was caught up with making a living, forging friendships, making a home, caught up in love and work and fun and disappointment and the games that people play with one another. I was immersed in the whole menu of human emotions and activities that ruled my life.
My first serious wake-up call happened on a morning exactly like any other morning. There was no reason to suspect that my life was about to change. I was sitting ten feet away from my roommate who was cleaning his shotgun across the room, something I had done many times before. I was relaxed, paying no attention to him, reading the paper and eating my breakfast. One moment all was quiet and peaceful, in the next moment a blast blew out the wall right beside my head. I dropped the bowl of cereal and looked at my roommate, stunned.
At first I didn't realize just how close the shotgun pellets had come to ending my life. I turned to look at the wall and not six inches away from where I sat I could see pinpoints of daylight. The lead pellets from the shotgun shell had punctured the wall and blown a piece of the siding off the house. Six inches more to the right and my head would have been pulp.
People's lives are cut short every day. They end without any warning, without any apology for robbing them of the time to finally get on to the serious business of living, to become the people they have the potential to be. I was one of the lucky ones. The universe took pity on me and offered me a chance to get with the program.
I carried a heightened sense of my mortality around with me for the better part of a year after that experience, but it was too hard to hang on to, too difficult to keep at the forefront of my mind. It wasn't long before I was immersed in the soap opera of my life again.
Several more years passed before I got a second chance. The life I had so carefully built imploded, forcing me to take a serious look at the choices I had made and how I was living.
I had married for all the wrong reasons, and none of the right ones. The effort and work that it took to maintain that marriage for almost fifteen years took its toll on my health, mental as well as physical.
I worked at a job that gave me no pleasure, not even a sense of satisfaction from accomplishing something that held meaning. Worse, I worked for someone for whom I had lost all respect. I approached each work day filled with tension and I'm sure that my attitude had a negative effect on my coworkers.
I don't like to make mistakes – no one does. It's hard to admit to them. For me, the worst part was that I didn't know how I had created such a mess. All along that journey I thought that I was making good choices, but with my life in tatters, I was forced to look at the train wreck I had left in my wake and do some serious self-evaluation.
I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't like what I found. I took a good look at myself in the mirror and asked, "Is this who I want to be for the rest of my life? What if I die tomorrow?"
Asking myself those two questions was my turning point. I would not spend one more day of my life going forward thinking that sometime in the future, I would change and fix everything. The time had come: I had to change then, that very moment, or risk losing the opportunity, for there was no guarantee I would live to see another day.
I made the leap and took mortality as my advisor.
Those are no longer just words to me, they have become an integral part of who I am. I took the inevitability of my death deep within me and held it up as the yardstick by which I now measure my life. It was a liberating, exhilarating, and life-altering action. I made major changes to the way I live that gave me a sense of freedom and power unlike any I had previously experienced. I started listening to, trusting, and following, my intuition.
I left an unhappy marriage that, as it turned out, neither of us were suited for, thereby freeing both of us. I quit an unsatisfying job that drained me in many ways because it wasn't a good fit for me. Those two moves created a vacuum in my life which allowed far more interesting, and suitable, situations to step in and fill the voids.
By reminding myself that I could die today, I stopped putting energy into anything that didn't feel right. I put aside any task or commitment that didn't resonate deep within me--that included activities that I had once pursued so I would be accepted by people whose opinions I realized were no longer important to me. Finally, because my time here is limited, I stopped putting energy into those people as well. My time has become too precious to waste on anything that does not fulfill me.
To some this may sound selfish, and I agree, it is. I do not however, see anything wrong with this type of selfishness because it means that I am one hundred percent sincere in everything I do, and that I give my best effort to whatever I do. There are no more half-measures in my life. I give my all to my work, to the people I love, to my commitments, and to my responsibilities. In return, I am filled with a deep satisfaction and happiness, and the knowledge that I am living my life well.
It took reaching a miserable, rocky bottom to motivate me to make the drastic changes to my life that I wish I had made years earlier. My fears prevented me from taking any action. I feared what others would think of me. I feared being unemployed. I feared being alone. I feared making more mistakes. I feared the unknown that changes would bring.
Once I took my own mortality as my guide, I found that there was nothing left to fear. I could survive losing a job, or a spouse, or making mistakes. With my mortality as a measuring stick, all of my fears disappeared, for what could be more serious, more final, than the loss of my life? All other losses pale beside that, and that knowledge can give a man the courage to reach for the stars.
Live each day as if it is the only one you have. Embrace your mortality and experience how precious each action, event, and relationship becomes. It is the path to not only reaching your fullest potential, but more important, it is the path to deep and lasting happiness.
A retired wildlife photographer, Noble Lee now farms and writes in the bluff country along the Upper Mississippi River.