In the space of a few short months I watched, awe-struck, as my granddaughter took her first-ever breath and bore silent witness as a dying stranger took their last. One life began, another life ended. The veil lifted, the bells chimed; I remembered once more that life is miraculous, fleeting, fragile and infinitely precious. Nothing is permanent. Everything is changing, arriving and leaving. With the New Year’s gift of slowed time, and the oxygen and inspiration that comes from travelling in foreign places, I offer my take on making the in-between breaths count; on what makes a life well-lived.
1. Make friends with yourself. Learn who you are, what you like, what you need. No matter who you meet, love, lose or live with, we have the longest relationship of all with ourselves. Learn to enjoy your own company, to find solace in your own care. Don’t confuse coupledom with connection. Ultimately the most important relationship we have must be with ourselves, or we cannot sustain the energy to be present for another long term. Compassion for ourselves is the opposite of selfish. It enables us to flourish, to shine and to thrive, even as we get old, together or alone. We don’t ever have to stop growing. If you are single, make the most of the opportunity! By getting to know yourself and what you need, you may not make the mistake of choosing a partner because you think they can do that for you. They can’t; it’s not their job. It’s also a recipe for disaster.
2. Feel your feelings. It’s important to feel all your emotions including the difficult ones. Emotions like anger or sadness, guilt or fear are not wrong or problems to be fixed. They are a form of intelligence all human beings have access to - they give us information about what we need. Problems arise when we shut ourselves off from our pain. Perhaps we never learned it was ok to feel things, or were shut down by others or shamed by the culture of toxic positivity which tells us we should be happy all the time, that there is something wrong with us because we feel bad. A feeling is energy in motion, often fuelled by ways of thinking we have inherited or created. It is important information, yes, but it may not be the truth. So try NOT to act, or speak, or do when tough spots arise. Instead, try to pause and be intentionally kind to yourself, comforting yourself like you would care for someone you love when they felt this way. If you can hold steady and observe for a while, you might find a little more space to work out how to respond. You’ll be less likely to hurt others and, more importantly, you will hurt yourself less.
3. Protect your sacred energy. None of us have an unlimited capacity to give to others without also caring for ourselves. Protecting your sacred energy is your responsibility as a healthy and mature person. Give yourself permission to move away from people who mistake your connected presence for an invitation to be talked at, walked over or taken from. Get attuned to your inner energy barometer. It’s an early warning system that others are taking more from you than you have to give – or want to give right now (there’s a difference). Having boundaries is healthy and necessary. You can’t be a safe harbour if you are drowning yourself. It’s ok to say no. It’s ok to say “I am not able to do that right now”. It’s ok to re-choose when you need to.
4. Don’t waste your precious time. Grow your mind. Find ways to educate yourself for your whole life, formally or informally, but (please) be discerning about what and who you allow to influence your mindspace. Try to master something that takes time and practise. Everything that looks easy was once hard. That yoga posture, playing an instrument, miniature boat building, knitting, painting, Irish dancing … whatever spins your wheels, just have something to show for your time at the end of this life. I am beyond grateful to have found yoga and meditation at a young age and today I find my body and mind to be flexible and strong. Not because I am naturally bendy, but because I roll my mat out most days and have done for decades. So get organised, make a plan to begin and then do it. Start small, set the bar low. Keep going. What matters is that you keep growing because what isn’t exercised, atrophies. That includes your body and your mind.
5. Practise forgiveness. Firstly for yourself, because you are going to muck up, you are going to get it wrong. If you are reading this then you, like me, are a human being and human beings make mistakes. They hurt themselves and they hurt other people. I have. Forgiveness is really about choosing to let go of the story that keeps the anger raw and alive, because doing so is no longer serving you. It is also ok not to forgive, and no one can tell you when and how to forgive. But know this; resentment towards another is like drinking a cup of poison and hoping the other dies. It really hurts us more than the other. Anger can also protect us, so if you need to hold onto your anger because you still need that protection, then do so. But ask yourself? Is this anger protecting me still or is it time to let it go? If it’s time to let go, find someone steady and that you trust to help you work it through. If someone has been hurt by you and wants to tell you, try not to be defensive. It’s happened. You didn’t know then what you know now. Practise being able to listen deeply, to see things from the other’s perspective, and to express regret and sorrow for the hurt you may have caused.
6. Know what you stand for. What is it you wish to leave behind? Most of us are grains of sand, we will hardly be remembered after another generation or two has passed. But those around you right now? How can you help light their path, even just a bit. Our world is suffering so desperately, we can easily feel overwhelmed and helpless. It’s more important now than ever to be steady on our feet, to find some middle way through the polarities around us. Work out your guiding principles, your values, what you stand for. At the very least, try to practise compassion as much as you can, don’t rush to judgement, try to walk in another’s shoes, see the common humanity around you. You won’t do this perfectly, but all of us can try.The science shows altruism and compassion are gifts to the giver as well as the receiver, it makes you feel good. Every small act of kindness matters, now more than ever. Sometimes it may literally save a life. And, when that final breath comes, your practise of kindness will go a long way towards knowing that yours was a life well lived. Or at least one in which you did your best.
Late Fragment (Raymond Carver, 1988)
Did you get what you wanted from this life? Even so? I did.
And what did you want?To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on this earth
*Late Fragment is the final poem in Raymond Carver’s (1938-1988) last published work, A New Path to the Waterfall. It is one of my favourite poems and a daily inspiration.