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What is the greatest marvel? Each day death strikes and we live as though we are immortal. ~The Mahabharata
On the morning of January 13, 2018, out of the blue, the people of Hawaii were confronted with apparent catastrophe. Every radio, television and cell phone in the state received a message that a ballistic missile was heading inbound towards the islands. People were advised to seek immediate shelter. The chilling last words of the messaged warned that “this is not a drill”.
For the next 38 minutes, facing what appeared to be a nuclear attack, people were forced to make decisions about how they would spend the last moments of their lives. Videos posted online showed people running through the streets in a panic. Twitter was inundated with tweets from people reaching out to say goodbye to those they loved. One woman wrote that she, her husband and infant child were sheltering in a closet, the husband shielding the baby. A reporter who had just dropped his son off at the airport wrote about having to decide whether to go back to the airport to be with his son, go to his wife’s place of business or head home to his two youngest children. He couldn’t possibly get to them all.
After almost 40 minutes, a second message was sent stating that it was a false alarm. There was no inbound missile. There was no nuclear war. No one would die in a conflagration of unimaginable proportions. Life would go on, at least for now.
We’re always told that we should live as if today is our last day alive. The problem with that advice is that it doesn’t take into account the human penchant for hope. Over 150,000 people die every day, yet the vast majority of us act as if we’re immortal. We know that somewhere, sometime, a day will arrive when we will be counted among that number. Nevertheless, because we’re convinced that today is not that day, we continue on in willful ignorance, until, sooner or later, the inevitable occurs. Our hope that today is not the end stops us from accepting the fact that each day puts us closer to our own ending. Confident that we have a surfeit of time, we put off until tomorrow the things we should be doing today. And everyday.
The Irish poet Brendan Kennelly once famously advised other poets to “write as if you’re already dead”. This advice can be co-opted and applied to how we live and how we face our mortality. Instead of living as if today were your last day, I invite you instead to live today as if you’re already dead. In other words, imagine that you’ve died and, through some outrageous miracle, you were given one final 24 hour period to come back and live. How would you spend those hours?
This is what I would do….
Light a candle and sit in the noiseless pre-dawn of my home and allow gratitude to pour out of every cell of my being. I would thank God for every blessing, every perceived challenge, every heartache and every celebration because it all served to deliver the richest human experience I could have hoped to live. I would fall on my knees in benevolence for the gift of these 24 additional hours and the opportunity to tie a ribbon of the highest integrity around this final gift of life.
Every device that might serve as a distraction would be disabled. My cell phone. My computer. My laptop. The television. All of it. With a divine reprieve of only 24 hours to fully immerse myself in this thing called life, I would honor all things living and sacred by giving them my full time, attention, passion and purpose.
I would walk on the beach and watch the sun rise. Listen to the water lapping at the shore and stop to watch the dolphins jump. I would dig my toes into the shallow water and be present to the magnificence of the feeling of being alive.
I would sit at a street side café and have an uber-strong cup of coffee and a fragrant, flakey French pastry. I would cut large thick slices of cold butter and layer it on the pastry and slowly sip the richness of the brew. These physical sensations – tasting, smelling, seeing, hearing, and touching – were taken for granted and knowing that these experiences were my last would allow me the present moment spaciousness to immerse myself in them fully.
From my table I would people watch and smile with my entire being as they passed and silently send them each blessings. For those who look troubled, I would get out of my chair and ask if I could give them a hug and quietly remind them that they are a blessing on this earth as well.
I would whisper into each of my six children’s ears how truly special they are and how amazing they will be. I would remind them that they already have within them everything it takes to be happy and successful in life. But not too rush. A good life takes time. “Follow your hearts,” I would encourage. “And if you do, everything else will unfold miraculously.” With a light-hearted laugh I will encourage them to never be afraid to try new things. And that when they fail, to remember that failure is a wonderful part of living. Indeed failure is God’s way of directing them down a new path armed with greater wisdom and insight than they had before they began. Finally I would hold them tight and ask them to look out for each other and to always be generous with their hugs and kind words because they are each other’s reflection of beauty, kindness, compassion and possibility in this world.
I would sit by the fire and drink champagne and let go of every grudge and insecurity. I would thank these negative feelings for creating compassion within me and for allowing me to be the person I’ve become. Then I would lay them down.
I have a handful of really close friends, I would call them and let them know how their kindness, wisdom, and caring deeply touched my life. I would simply say, I love you, you made my life richer in the dark times and a celebration in the light.
I would find reasons to belly laugh. Really deep and powerful laughter, straight from the soul, given as a gift back to the universe.
I would make love to my husband. Foreplay on this blessed evening would be words of gratitude. No one has had a greater impact on my life than this man. I wish for him to know that I recognize how well he provided strength and unconditional love to our family and that he lightened the load in every way he could. He created a safe place where we all could all be our most vulnerable selves and in doing so created a platform where we grew stronger and more authentic with each passing day. He is selfless. Wise beyond his years. And he has loved me unlike any other human being.
Finally, I would go outside and count the stars. I would sit in the stillness and the dark with my husband and children surrounding me. I would remind them that every evening they can come outside and look up amidst the starlight and know that their mama is always with them, always looking over them, and always and forever whispering blessings. And all that they need do is ask for help anytime and sit in silence to await the answer. My words will come as a feeling, so don’t ever ignore what your gut is telling you. I will always be listening. I will always answer.
It is indeed a marvel that we act as if we are immortal in the face of the inevitability of our own demise. Yet, ironically, it is this inevitability that we must focus on in order to bring the greatest brilliance to our lives and the lives of those around us.
In the face of impending catastrophe, the people of Hawaii faced an untenable and impossible choice. They had to try to do and say everything that needed to be done and said before it was too late. There is no need for any of us to face this choice.
We are not immortal. Ignoring death does not deny it. The sand still inexorably slips through the hourglass and the time we are allotted is steadily lessened. This is not a cause for sadness. There is nothing to dread. It is simply the way of the universe. Avoiding the subject, actually does more harm than good, since it prevents you from living a joyful and meaningful life, one that is authentic to you.
If you live your life as the gift that it actually is, the sting of death is removed. Today is the day to reach out with unconditional love to those you care for. Today is the day to give everyone you meet your undivided attention and the respect that they deserve. Today is the day to begin treating your bucket list as a to do list and not a wish list. Most importantly, today is the day to break through the constraints and rules that hold you back and start living fully in the moment, as if this were your own 24 hour redo on life.
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