We have all seen and read stories about people who warn us to take nothing for granted. “Life is short,” they say or “live life to the fullest,” or “you never know when things might change.” Of course, most everyone else never expects things to change nor are we able to foresee when change might be on the horizon.
I remember when my grandfather died that it all happened quite suddenly. In his late 80s, he was deteriorating and required an oxygen machine everywhere that he was going. But he was otherwise doing fine – well enough that we went to a Patriots game together months before he died. Very suddenly, he got sick, and while he was sick, he slipped and fell on his hip, which all but sealed his fate. Even in that moment when I already knew that things were heading south, I had planned to get from New York City to Worcester the following day so that I might see him in his last moments. He died that evening; I never had the opportunity to see him before he died, and in the immediate aftermath, I regretted that I had not just left that day instead.
My family is very close, so this was a very difficult time for all of us – especially my grandmother, who had been married to my grandfather for over 65 years. Her entire life seemingly changed overnight. She moved out of the community she was living in and moved into an assisted living facility that she had been reluctant about previously. The person she had spent every waking moment with was gone. Since he had worked in a travel agency, they had quite literally traveled the world together. Even today, I see my grandmother get emotional when the family is together and my grandfather is not there. At Thanksgiving a few years ago, my uncle had a bench built in memoriam outside the restaurant where our family usually congregates to celebrate the holiday.
What was painful about his passing is obvious – he was loved by all of us. But beyond that, his death was a tragic mistake and an act of negligence. Without getting into too much detail, I can at least say that litigation against his caretakers was under consideration for a little while as it became apparent that people who were supposed to be watching him were not paying attention. His untimely death was preventable, which is what made it all the more devastating for my family and particularly my grandmother.
Earlier this year, a pandemic swept over the entire planet and life as we know it here in the United States has seemingly changed forever. We have record unemployment, we are unable to see people that we love (even when they are dying), we have massive sickness and loss of life, and the discourse in our country has become so frustrating for anyone who is not on the far right or the far left that anyone with the slightest nuance of opinion on anything has probably decided to keep their mouth shut and choose silence over discourse and engagement with others. We are at a low, and we got there very quickly.
But life before this was otherwise relatively hunky dory. Sure, we had our share of problems like we always do, but the economy was doing great, we had record employment, and in an election year, many people were filled with hope for the types of change that our country so urgently needs. Suffice it to say, nobody saw this coming.
What can a pandemic teach us about appreciating our lives?
When I first moved to New York City, I was very depressed. I felt anonymous in the sea of the city. I did not have many friends or hobbies, I had unhealthy habits and formed bad relationships. I sought out a therapist to talk with and he gave me a very simple piece of advice which I still have a hard time following. His advice was to keep my phone in my pocket when I was walking through the streets of Manhattan and to take off my headphones and stop listening to music. To that end, he instructed me to be present: to observe what was going on around me, to be mindful of the sights, sounds, and smells, and to be paying attention.
As an otherwise anxious person, this is a lot more challenging for me than it sounds. I have a problem of being on my phone too much, seeing what is out there on social media, listening to music or texting with friends. All this to say, I have a hard time being present in a moment instead of trying to be elsewhere (digitally) or looking forward to a moment that is yet to come.
This way of living always leads to sadness. When you are constantly looking forward to the future, you are never appreciating the present. Because even when you get to that future thing you are looking forward to, you are all too eager to look forward to the next thing instead of enjoying the present moment. I noticed this too in the way that I often compete with myself: I went from not being a long distance runner whatsoever to running a half marathon in an amazing time to running another half marathon in a slightly slower time and crying because I was so devastated that my performance had declined. A more positive approach to that scenario would have been to have had some perspective – and to have inherently enjoyed the experience of running the race. After all, that is why you sign up for it.
What a pandemic can teach us about our lives is that we truly ought to take nothing for granted. Yes, we hear this all the time and seemingly do not change the way we live because we expect that these freak accidents we hear about with other people will probably never happen to us. But if there is any silver lining to COVID-19, it is that it affects every single one of us. Granted, it affects some of us a lot more than it affects others, but it affects all of us nonetheless. There is now no excuse for anyone not to heed the message about how quickly things can change.
Now that you have experienced how quickly this change can happen, what will you do to live your life with purpose?
I do not purport to be an expert at this by any means, but as someone who has struggled to be present and to appreciate each and every moment, I have made an intentional effort to break some bad habits.
Every morning, one of the first things that I do is meditate for twenty minutes. It forces me to be present for a prolonged period of time. It trains my brain muscles to not wander so much and to focus on the present moment. While it does not cure me of all my ills, it does make me less irritable, more calm, and more focused.
I try to find time every day to go for a walk or a run. This is like a more active form of meditation for me. I try to be purposeful in observing what is going on around me during my run. If I still have one small sin in my runs, it is that I listen to music; however, if that is a crime, then most runners will be guilty as charged.
I have been spending a lot more time than I used to putting care and passion into cooking and reading. Again, these are two activities where you are with yourself and need to be deliberate and intentional in what you are doing. The act of cooking is an act of creation, and it is not hard to appreciate things that you create yourself. As a general rule of thumb, people are more likely to invest their mental energy into anything if they have to make a sacrifice for that thing. When you read a book or cook a meal, you sacrifice time and energy. When you post a stupid meme on Facebook that entirely simplifies an otherwise sophisticated and nuanced topic, inviting the wrath of many of your friends, all you are sacrificing is the click of a button and subsequently, your sanity. You are not present in that moment; you are elsewhere, in a digital ether, somewhere, arguing with someone who themself is finding difficulty being present.
To be clear, I still fall into these traps all the time. I joined several professional development groups with the hope of being intentional about my career development, but have found as a result an overwhelming amount of never-ending content to consume and messages to respond to within these communities. Sometimes by trying to be present and build up one’s own mental fortitude, you accidentally invite even more distracting stimuli into the fray and make it even harder to think clearly and forcefully.
There are things in my life that are or were relatively stable: family members and others close to me who have always been there for me; a job that I have had for nearly seven years; a feline friend I have had for eight years; a seemingly unbreakable city that I lived in at the aforementioned job, and so on. And while only the last of these things has truly crumbled before my very eyes, undoubtedly a day will come when some of these other stable building blocks of my life come crashing down. Will I be ready?
Whatever we decide to make of all of this, it’s important, I think, to follow the advice of my friend and mentor, Bob Almond. He told me recently not to have one foot out the door in anything that I do. If we start to build contingency plans out of fear that we might lose the things that we love, all we are really doing is deciding to be a little less present so we can deal with a little less pain later on. Yet pain is a naturally occurring part of all our lives, and it is only with pain that we can realize the relative joy of being happy.