What would you do if you were constantly reminded that the seconds of your life were ticking away, bringing you closer and closer to the end of life? I was told I had years to live.
To be more precise, I had 48 years. Moment by moment they were ticking away. We often think of how old we are but not about how many years we have left on this Earth. I used to have a watch called Tikker…a wristband reminder of my mortality, like a Fitbit for the soul. Using a rough formula that factors in age and health, it determines your life expectancy and counts down. Second by second, my Tikker made me aware of my impending death and my response to it.
You would think that a death watch would make me fearful of time—paralyzed by the thought of death. But my immediate response was an overwhelming understanding that my life had just started. Everything in the past became the past. Sure, shit had happened, but why let that weigh me down? There was so much life to live. Here are three questions I asked myself and ones you can ask yourself to get closer to fulfillment, especially when you're feeling overwhelmed.
1. How do you live longer?
Reclusive poet Mary Oliver writes in "The Summer Days":
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
My answer to her question became my life. The constant reminder of my mortality gave me an organizing principle, a reminder that I must redesign my life by my own choice. You can always wait for the slap-in-the-face method—waiting for a life-threatening diagnosis to spur you into action. Reading accounts of people who have shared their near-death experiences, I find that almost all the stories end in these people changing the way they approach their lives. They became transformed by the experience. By coming to this awareness they were able to maximize each moment, and while that's not exactly "living longer," they certainly got more bang for their buck of "time."
My own transformation was quick in some ways, slow in others. I worked in a windowless Manhattan office under fluorescent lights. I saw friends and family when "time" would allow. While living my mundane life bounded by convention on every side, I was filled with wanderlust, though. I daydreamed of a different kind of flexibility in my work and in my life.
2. How do you find fulfillment?
With my watch as my talisman—no longer on my wrist but its ticking lodged in my head—I started with a superficial change that signaled a much more profound shift in the state of my being: I dyed my hair blue, something I had thought about doing for years. Some time later, I allowed my inner Francophile to emerge fully. I left my city job to contemplate my life and learn French in the South of France. Coming back to the United States, I re-envisioned my life teaching meditation and yoga and writing. In some ways, it may sound like I'm living a fairy tale, and in some ways, I am. I'm doing things the way I want to do them. Maybe this new life will work; maybe it won't. Whether or not, I'm living life without regret, very much from day to day, moment to moment.
3. How do you face fear?
The changes I've been experiencing extend beyond me, too. While Tikker reminded me that my own time was passing away, it also reminded me that everyone has this invisible watch on their wrists, and I hear the ticking most when I think about the people I love. So I act on it. For instance, my dad is the person most special to me in this world, and he lives thousands of miles away. Despite this, I make time for him every day. A close friend was texting me about not looking forward to an extended, close-quarters vacation with her parents. She has a high-stress work life, so understandably this is not her preferred vacation. But I reminded her in not so many words of the invisible watch on her parents' wrists. They are older and have had bouts of life-threatening illness. What if she knew this was her last viable vacation with them? Would she approach this time with them differently? Would she relish the seemingly annoying moments? Would she seek out closeness?
What would you do if you could see on your wrist how much time you have left? Would you speak your truth more often? Tell more jokes? Cook more meals? Travel to places you've always wanted to go, even if it's just down the block?
No matter the constraints and obligations you have in your life (young children, a stressful job, elderly parents, and on and on), as educator Steven Covey once wrote, "You can live your life by design or default."
You have a choice in every moment, and time is on your side.