So much of our time is spent regretting the past or planning for the future that we often fail to live in the present. We know better. We read the wisdom of spiritual masters. We listen to pop psychology and motivational speakers. Or do we? Do we really listen to the message or do we simply hear it and forget it?
The trouble with life lessons of this magnitude is that they are harder to learn than we realize. And if we've grown up in a society that trains us from early on to be future-oriented, always planning, always striving, always working towards something instead of being present in the moment, the lessons are that much more difficult. Our habitual thought patterns create a way of being in the world and changing that takes concerted effort.
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And the habit hardens into character;
So watch the thought and it's ways with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings . . .
As the shadow follows the body,
as we think, so we become."
Thinking about the past and the future, we become someone who resides there; someone who is absent in our own lives. The good news is that life provides us with a regular supply of opportunities to learn how to stop worrying and
start living. The bad news is that the lessons are necessarily painful.
We may not be aware enough to even recognize, let alone benefit from, the useful information our day-to-day experiences provide, but now and again something happens, something that is dramatic enough, to wake us up. For at least a brief moment, we see clearly; we recognize the folly of looking backward and the futility of planning too far forward. We recognize, at least momentarily, the value of staying in and appreciating the current moment.
Talking about painful lessons, an acquaintance of mine offered up the following concern during our Sunday morning "Joy and Concerns" this past weekend. Sherry* told us that a friend, a woman she had known since high school, had suffered a massive heart attack the prior week. She had gone out for dinner with her husband for Valentine's Day and the very next day, with no prior history of heart disease, had suffered a heart attack so massive that she was put on, and days later removed from, life support. She had shown no improvement and, now that the machines had been turned off, it was "only a matter of time." By the way, Sherry's friend is a 37 year-old mother of three.
Why do such horrible things happen? I certainly can't answer that. But I can tell you, that along with the pain and grief, there is a tremendous learning opportunity here for all of us. The specifics of the lesson may vary from person to person, but the overriding message is the same.
As we stood sharing our disbelief and sorrow, Sherry nodded knowingly as I said that tragic events like this always felt like a wake-up call to me. As someone who plans and worries and doubts and complains entirely too much, I had to wonder - "what the hell am I worrying and complaining about?" and, more importantly, "why?" Seriously, why should I, or any of us, spend this moment . . .this precious moment in time, the only moment that currently exists, the moment that for all we know could be our last . . . regretting things that happened yesterday or worrying about things that might happen tomorrow? What could possibly be a bigger waste of time than that? Why can't we see everyday that our eyes manage to flutter open in the morning as a gift?
My father, who had discovered by chance that he was a diabetic long enough after he had become so to have already suffered some eye damage, worried about each laser treatment and about whether, or perhaps when, he would go blind. An active, independent person, who lived in an area not known for public transportation, he felt his life would be over if he lost his sight. But my Dad never did go blind. He was later diagnosed with leukemia which eventually took his life. All of the moments spent worrying about blindness that never came to be. What might he have done with that time?
My mother-in-law watched her mother die from Huntington's Disease. It's a horrible way to go. Mood changes, mild tremors and coordination losses slowly evolve to an almost complete loss of physical control over many, many years. Carrying the same genetic markers, my mother-in-law knew this was her fate and, to her credit, she did use this knowledge to her benefit. She traveled and involved herself in the things that she loved trying to make the most of the healthy years she had left. But surely, even for her, worries about what the future might hold must have caused her some anguish. And to what end? My mother-in-law did die, but not from Huntington's. Long before her Huntington's had progressed to a life threatening stage, she was diagnosed with cancer. None of us had spent anytime worrying about that.
Talking later with a friend of mine, we agreed that worrying is futile. She made the very good point that most of the things we worry about never even come to pass. That's so true, isn't it? I worry about diabetes, heart disease and strokes. She pointed out that I'll probably be run over by a truck. Who knows? I can't worry about everything, so why worry about any of it?
But still, being human, we do worry. And it's especially true, that reaching a certain age (some of you know what I'm talking about here) leads to a myriad of opportunities to confront our own mortality and to worry some more.
So what do we do? We learn to pay attention to what is happening now and to learn what we can from it. We try to remind ourselves each day that worrying is a huge time-waster that accomplishes nothing. We go to bed each night thinking about all of the things that we can be grateful for.
The truth is that we can let the recognition of our own mortality paralyze us with fear, or we can use it to motivate us to hurry up and start living. The choice is ours really. We just need to be reminded now and again.
"If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take us by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid."
- Muriel Spark
* Sherry is not her real name.