First off, I want to clear up some things. By reminding myself that one day, I too will die, is not my version of YOLO. To me, “you only live once” is a sort of hedonistic anthem used to justify immediate gratification and pleasure-seeking, or simply recklessness. When I remind myself that I am not going to live for forever, and that I’m not even guaranteed tomorrow, it’s a clarion call to make the most of every single day. Like many of you, I am constantly inundated with responsibilities and demands. And they pull me in every direction. And meanwhile I have my own dreams and goals that I want to prioritize and pursue to keep investing in my own heart and future. It’s easy to feel completely lost in the fog of choices swirling around you. And so I need a way to cut through that fog, and find my way again. So I pull my mortality out of my pocket and face it head on. And here are some things it reminds me:
Make today great, not tomorrow. Of course I want to make sure that my family is not struggling when my wife and I are senior citizens because I know that medical expenses will mount up, and kids are super expensive to raise, and emergency situations do happen. But I just don’t believe in the stereotypical notions of “retirement” that so many pursue. I don’t want to kill myself for forty years just so that I can have a nest egg of hundreds of thousands in the bank just because that’s what everyone else tries to do. I also don’t want to die with a lot of money that just gets passed on down to the next generation because 1) I want them to learn how to work hard and sacrifice and 2) it flat out seems like a bad idea to be a “slave” to “the man” or “machine” just to get to an age where you can’t even really enjoy it. So, I choose to live wisely and in fiscally responsible ways, but want to go on adventures and epic trips now – when my body is able to do all the things that I want it to. I tell myself “we’re all going to die soon,” and I go. And I have never regretted it.
Love recklessly. I feel like many people I know don’t make (or haven’t made) the time to let their closest loved ones know they are deeply loved. Like in a way where you know if something tragic happened, you said what you wanted to say and have no regrets. I don’t want to live that way. Like John Eldredge taught me years ago in his book Wild at Heart, I want to love others with reckless abandon without needing them to show me love first. And I don’t want to keep procrastinating out of laziness or because I am focusing on other things that really won’t matter at the end of my life.
Early in the fall of 2006, one of my close friends was killed in a motorcycle accident. All of a sudden everything came into focus for me about the brevity of life and the importance of loving family and friends fully and deeply, and making sure everything you want to say is said. And earlier that year, I had heard on a broadcast Family Life Today the idea of writing “tribute letters” to my parents, and that really struck a chord with me. These letters would be my way of honoring them for the legacy they have left in me, and for all that they have done to raise me right. Every child who grows into adulthood knows the pain of watching their own parents get older, and I knew that there was so much I wanted to say to them, and that I needed to do so before it was too late.
So I honestly prayed for months that God would prepare my heart and would speak through me and give me the words to say. And then in early November I sat down one day and just started to write one for my mom, and then one for my dad. I made a few slight revisions here and there over the next few days, but it was remarkable how pretty perfect and complete they were in their very first draft. And that gave me confidence that it was a God thing. I had them typeset, matted, and framed, and decided to give them on Christmas morning. I first asked for their forgiveness for dishonoring them in certain ways while growing up, and asked them if they knew how much I love them. And then I read the letters out loud.
There were a lot of tears, and it was really difficult to even get through the readings, but it was probably the most powerful and memorable moment we’ve ever had in our home. And now they are hanging up on a wall at my folks’ house, and I am so thankful that I took the time so that they would really, really know how much they mean to me. Because “we’re all going to die soon.” And I needed them to know the depths of my love for them.
Pursue my passions. One of the saddest things I see around me is so many people who are clearly not happy in their career. And so many of those people simply don’t take time to pause, step outside themselves, and try something new. Perhaps it’s because this feels incredibly scary and risky, or because it forces painful and exhausting self-reflection. Maybe they are in a phase where so much is competing for their energy and attention that the parts of their soul that are crying out for help can’t really be heard. And so they just stay the course, and endure it, and live their lives in survival mode. And for sure, the weekends help them recover a bit from their super difficult weeks, and their annual vacation time helps them recover a bit from their super difficult years. But you can still tell that it is taking a devastating toll on their emotional, psychological, and even physiological well-being. And then one day they wake up and realize they have spent the vast majority of their life doing something that sucked all of the joy out of them, and left a shell of who they once were.
In 2014 my sister realized that her work environment was slowly killing her, and wrestled for months with many hard questions. And I listened a lot, and tried to offer encouragement and advice when the moment was right. She could stay the course as so many others do. In fact, doing so was quite safe, and the routine – though unpleasant – was comfortable. Plus, she was really good at her work. For my sister, life would have kept on going had she chosen to stick with it. And it would be a good life, a noble life, a life of value and meaningful contributions and even a measure of fulfillment. But, what if there was something better in store for her? What if she had a different calling, or purpose, mission, or destiny? Wasn’t it worth finding out? Wasn’t it worth taking the time to explore what could be, and entertain options and even dreams that were now real possibilities again? When we are growing up and thinking about what we wanted to become, we’re filled with so much awe and excitement. But then we often lose it. What if it could be rediscovered, and what if now was the moment to make that happen?
In our conversations together, I specifically remember reminding my sister that “we’re all going to die soon.” And while I don’t believe she hinged her decision on that, I do feel that it cemented her already-existent desire to not have regrets, and to live her life to the absolute fullest (John 10:10) – no matter what. And so she took a leave of absence for a year and went to leadership trainings, spent quality time with loved ones, pursued dance and fitness and other things that bring her joy, went on adventures, and evaluated multiple new and exciting career opportunities. It has been so good for her, and I wish so many others would figure out a way to do the same.
Life is so ridiculously short. And it’s going so fast. Pastor James MacDonald says it moves even quicker when you start to have more years in the rearview mirror than you do in front of you. Perhaps if we were intentionally considering this truth more often, we would live out our days with so much less regret, and with so much more confidence. I want to enjoy my life in the here and now, and I want to not take loved ones for granted, and I want to spend myself in life-affirming and not life-sucking ways. I also don’t want to hold grudges, burn bridges, be sad all the time, or try to fit into a mold that isn’t me. When you think about the current trajectory of your life, I bet you know what you don’t want to do. I know what is worth it, and that’s what I am going to try to make happen. And I hope you choose to do the same. You are always carrying your mortality around with you, regardless of whether you are well acquainted with it. Pull it out and stare at it from time to time. And allow it to help guide you along.
Image source: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/content/dam/news/photos/000/848/84883.ngsversion.1422287057410.adapt.768.1.jpg