Fighting My Own Mortality

After all these years of trying to live life fully, I still fight against my own mortality. I don’t mean fighting in that noble, Dylan Thomas, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” sort of way. I mean I struggle against time, with choices and tradeoffs in life; struggle to live life deliberately so that I might not when I come to die discover that I had not lived.

Of course, I am referring to Henry David Thoreau’s proclamation:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

That made so much sense to me when I was younger that I actually went to the woods. I went by way of motorcycle, like Robert Pirsig who wrote Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. I went by foot. And indeed, it was sublime. I gave true account of it (in a journal somewhere that I can’t find in my boxes of stuff). And at some point I had to leave the woods. I didn’t want to spend my entire life just hanging out in the woods. Even though I still love the woods and the serenity I find in nature, there is so much more that I want to do in this modern world besides put to rout all that is not life.

The problem of going the other way – away from asceticism – is that always seeking the next passion, the next adventure, the next way to live deliberately can start to feel like an obligation. Building a career, having a family – these start to feel like things I need to squeeze into my life. I start to feel like I’m in a race against my own death and I don’t like it.

It’s no wonder that studies show that too much time on Facebook can be depressing. You see all the awesome things that everyone else is doing that you want to add to your own list but will probably never do.

A few years ago I had an epiphany. I have to try to remember it at moments like this to calm myself, and to keep from developing an unhealthy resentment of Walden Pond.

There were two parts to the epiphany. The first part of the epiphany was that there is not going to be enough time in life to experience all that I want to experience.

I’m reminded of this particularly during the current national conversation, “Can modern women have it all?” Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, has been making headlines with her message to women of, “Lean in!” That’s her advice to career-women facing the tradeoffs between career and home life; between ambition and feminine identity.

By contrast, when young women ask Erin Callan for advice she tells them: “Don’t do it like me.” Erin Callan was once one of the most powerful women on Wall Street. In her own words, “[She] leaned in far.” Callan is the former CFO of Lehman Brothers. She was the public face of Lehman’s financial meltdown in September of 2008. After years of laying low after that financial crisis, she felt compelled to pop back into the mainstream consciousness to chime in on the “lean in” conversation. In an interview with Ann Curry, she said, “You don’t wake up one day and make a conscious decision that you’re going to be OK with [making sacrifices to your career], or you want to live that way. It just sort of happens over time as you move through your career.”

These are smart women. Accomplished women. They represent two very different takes on how to cope with the pressure of “having it all.” I like what each of them has to say. There are valid points on each side of the discussion. And although the issues they speak to are more intensely experienced by women, I think that the underlying source of tension is shared by men.

Every human being deals with tradeoffs in life. Modern western culture turns the screws on that tension. You receive messages from all directions that compete for your attention about what you should be doing, how you should be thinking, what you should have and who you should become. Should, should, should all over the place.

The trap is believing that if you make the right choices, from year to year, that you will one day be able to proclaim, “I have arrived.”

That’s an illusion.

It’s worse than an illusion. It’s a mirage that will only leave you thirsting for more.

I realized that in my mid-30’s. I was taking a seminar on time-management because my company wanted me to be a better manager.  Sounds a little dry, right?  A little boring, right?  Actually, it turned out to be a deeply personal and intimate experience.  It was a 3-day seminar with 8 people in the room. We talked about how we viewed time. We talked about how we thought about a job. We shared stories about how we were raised to think about time and work, and stuff related to time. For example, one discussion began with, “Tell us about the first job you ever had. How old were you? What did work mean to you at that age?”

Those discussions made me question lots of stuff that I had never questioned. I had been programmed from an early age much as I suspect you were.  I had been programmed to believe certain things about time, work, and money. But were those things actually true? A lot of that programming was about emulating a work ethic that was probably more appropriate in the 1940’s. The thinking was dated. Were these beliefs about exchanging time for money appropriate today?  Whatever the truth, I knew one thing for certain: my thinking was not optimal if I were going to pursue the things I wanted in life.

Here’s the thing… I had spent much of my life trying to become an accomplished person. At a young age I decided for myself that at the end of life I would measure the fullness of life by looking back at my memories.  I was 8 years old when I had that thought. I remember clearly how I thought it through:  life is about memories – in the end you only have memories to measure your life – so more memories must equal more life.

I made lists of things I wanted to see and experience. I gathered books on things I wanted to learn. With every accomplishment I achieved, my list only grew longer because the more I experienced the more I learned about what was out there.

Even right now, at this moment, I say to myself, “I want to spend 6 months wondering through Southeast Asia, and I also want to spend a month in a Buddhist monastery in northern India, and I want to grow an organic garden in northern New York, and complete a triathlon, and visit my friend in Paris, and then bicycle all the way to Berlin, and then party with friends on the beach in Mexico.”

I say these things to myself. And the other voice kicks in, “Well, sure, but… I can’t leave my job to do these things because I’ll burn all my savings, yet at the same time I need to build my finances for retirement so perhaps I should also look at real estate investments this year, and it would be nice to have another degree before I die so that I can increase my earning potential,” and on it goes in that direction.

Eventually, those voices in my head encounter a truth. It was that time management seminar that helped me to see it. It’s a truth that I still have to remind myself: there isn’t enough time to do everything.

I had made it all the way to my mid-30’s before facing that fact. Once I realized that, I realized that I was going to have to make choices. You say to yourself, “I want to do this, and I want to see that, and I want to develop into this kind of person but I also want to see what it’s like to be this other kind of person.” But then you do the math. You add up all the time for those things. You start to realize the drawbacks of mortality.

More profoundly, you start to wonder if you are the person you want to be.

Up until that point in my life, I thought that there would be some kind of benchmark when I would have enough accomplishments under my belt that I could look at myself and say, “You are an accomplished person.”

Looking to the future for some point at which you arrive is a trap.

The same could be said for any ideal you are striving for: to be a compassionate person, to be a successful person, to be a wise person, to be a happy person. It is a trap to look for some landmark on the horizon that tells you that you will soon be that person.

For me, I found a way to escape the trap. The trick was to understand that the mark of an accomplished person is in the way of thinking, and not some absolute measure of accomplishment. There is no absolute measurement.

In other words, I was already an accomplished person because I thought the way an accomplished person thinks. Yet, I had been waiting for an imaginary external landmark. And the stress of wondering when I would some day arrive kept me from fully enjoying the things I had accomplished. Not that I should rest on my laurels and stop striving, but that it was okay to feel… fulfilled.

The same could be said for being a compassionate person, being a successful person, being a wise person, or even being a happy person.

When I started feeling fulfilled, I started to feel less in a battle with time.

That realization instantly led to a more generalized understanding on the essence of being. It clarified something I had heard years before. It clarified the idea that when one wants to be a certain kind of person, one does not first have things that allows them to do things that then allows them to become that person. No. It’s the other way around.

One must first be.

Then one will in accordance with their being, do.

The world responds to your state-of-being more than you state of doing.

Be. Do. Have.

That’s the order of creation.

Furthermore, Becoming is Being.

It’s taken yet more years for this second part to sink in. It’s what brings me to what I have learned up to now. The first part of that epiphany was intellectual. I felt liberated when I understood that I was not fighting against time.

But that understanding was really more intellectual – in my brain than all the way down to my bones, down in my chakras.

Finally I am starting to feel at my core that becoming is the essence of being.

Do you know what I mean by that?

Life doesn’t happen to you. You are creating your life. You are The Creator. Your daily acts of creation define your being.

It’s true that the external world makes claims on your time and identity. But the external world does not shape your ability to be. It only appears to do so. The lens through which you view the external world is what shapes your ability to be.

Through the questions you pose to yourself, and through the voices you choose to listen to in your head, you focus your lens of perception. The subsequent choices you make determine what you create in this life and how you create it.

You can begin to change the perception of your own being when you acknowledge that you are responsible for your experience of life. You are responsible for what you create in your life. You access great power when you recognize that you are responsible for the every choice and decision you make. As Jean Paul Sartre said:

“The greatest sin is believing we have no choice.”

You always have choices. We might not all have the same choices. And you might not always enjoy the choices you must make. But you are always able to choose, always able to create. So powerful is this fact that Victor E. Frankl, a survivor of German concentration camps, wrote in Man’s Search For Meaning:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Choosing one’s own way. That is the act of becoming. And the act of becoming is itself the essence of being.

There is no arriving at your own being at some time in the future. All states of being are fragments of becoming in the present moment. This means that your very being is defined now, in this moment. If you embrace this very moment in your life, and every subsequent moment in your life, then the act of becoming itself feels like the sense of having arrived. Ironically, you must keep that feeling of arriving at bay because as soon as you become enamored with having arrived, you are looking back into the past and are no longer focusing on becoming in the present moment.

This is the wisdom I return to when I feel like I am struggling with choices – struggling against time. I think to myself, “If I can remember this, then I can let go of my fight against my mortality.”

None of us knows when we will die. But being aware of your own becoming in each and every moment can lead to truly feeling alive and awake. If you can do this all your days, then perhaps when you finally come to die, you will not need to wonder whether you truly lived.

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