When I was younger and saw old people just sitting, eyes half closed, I used to think they were just dozing. Now I know that behind those half closed eyes, their brains are often working hard, sorting out their life and experiences, trying to find some meaning, some pattern to their whole lives. What was beautiful about my life? Why and what did I live for? What did I achieve, what mistakes did I make, what do I regret? Can I still do anything about my mistakes?
When someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness their priorities in life often change quite drastically. A job or making money seems less important than before. The shortness of time remaining focuses our thoughts on what is really important. When death is near, we try to find something bigger and more lasting than our own lives.
Why do we wait so often until we are old or terminally ill to sort out our lives? I think there are several reasons.
For one, we don’t like to face how limited is our life span. Secondly, we may have a tendency to fritter away our time on inessentials. We check our emails every half hour. We go shopping when really we don’t need anything. We watch television even when we aren’t interested in the program we are watching.
It doesn’t help that the media and our politicians suggest many cheap ways for fulfillment or solving the problems so we don’t have to get involved.
We are told to look after ourselves, indulge ourselves, justifying immediate personal rewards with “you deserve it”. Some politicians promise more security with more and bigger jails and harsher sentences although research shows that these measures only produce more serious crime. Some fundamentalist preachers promise certainty of a good life and salvation if we do or believe certain things.
We come to believe that the poor, the unemployed, vanishing animal and plant species, starving children in other lands should not be our personal concern (except perhaps at Christmas). However, in addition to the people we love, these and similar issues are exactly those causes that are greater than ourselves and which are ultimately really important.
Even if we decide to change the focus in our lives, we delay until next week, next month or next year.
Finding meaning for our life is a lifelong search with an acceptance that there is no absolute perfection, certainty or security, but we can get closer and closer to these ideals.
One of the best things we can do for our children, grandchildren or close friends, is to talk about our mistakes and what we learned from them. What we would do differently? Mistakes are as often what we did not do, as what we did. The earlier we start to think about what is really important for us, for those we love and for those we share this earth with, the more likely that we have the time and opportunity to correct our mistakes. It is then that we will reach the end of our lives with the conviction that we have lived a meaningful life.
Some people can do this search for meaning on their own or through discussions with family and friends. Some may find counselling helpful. What way we choose is less important than that we do it now and don’t wait until it is too late.