On living and dying: 2. The simple thing wrong with us

Are there people in your life to whom you feel, at some level, a need to express something important? Or is there a change to your life that you know or feel, vaguely but persistently, you need to make? Most of us can answer “yes” to one or both of these questions, and yet we often lack the courage or motivation to act. And so we suspend a vague intention to some future point. This human tendency reminds me of a book passage that I think about possibly more than any other:

There is one simple thing wrong with you – you think you have plenty of time… If you don’t think your life is going to last forever, what are you waiting for? Why the hesitation to change? You don’t have time for this display, you fool. This, whatever you’re doing now, may be your last act on earth. It may very well be your last battle. There is no power which could guarantee that you are going to live one more minute.

Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castaneda

This stunning passage is from Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castaneda. The book is the third in a series about Castaneda’s apprenticeship to the Yaqui shaman, Don Juan. Ixtlan is not a physical place but a metaphorical hometown to which a ‘man of knowledge’ (‘sorcerer’ or ‘warrior’) is drawn to return.The books were published as a work of anthropology, but are now considered largely a work of fiction. I read the books as student in my early 20s, and still find much wisdom within them. This extract again came to mind this year, with the loss of two grandparents, within weeks of one another, and the loss of a friend.

Sgt. Pepper55 CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/29XPxsh

I first encountered death in a significant way at eight years old, and I remember it vividly. I heard from my parents that a classmate had died in a gas leak in a caravan, along with her father and brother, leaving her mother without a family. One night was all it took.

Eleven years later, my own mother died, shortly after her own father, and the grief from this took many years to even stabilise. This, more than anything, affected my outlook on life and death. She was 45 – younger than me now. I was the middle of five siblings and thereafter, many weekends would be spent travelling home to wash and iron clothes for my Father and younger siblings. Other weekends would be spent trying to forget what had happened.

In the almost 30 years since. Castoneda’s reflections on mortality at that time resonated. Even when I don’t consciously think I have plenty of time, I often act as if I do. I think we all do. The mind cannot accept or even comprehend the idea that the next moment may be our last. But that moment does come.

I often think deeply about death. This is not in a bleak, foreboding activity, but something to help guide how I live my life. I read about the regrets of the dying, and ask myself what I might regret were I to receive a diagnosis and prognosis like my mother’s. I always conclude that the things would be things I did not do. I try to act on those. These things are sometimes displaced by activities that bring little real meaning or joy.

In 2018 I wrote a poem to capture my thoughts and feelings on this issue:

No-one ever died wishing

No-one ever died wishing
They’d stayed longer at the office
Tapping at keys and staring at screens
Sand trickling away into corporate machines

No-one ever died wishing
They’d fitted in more shopping
Malls and sites serving corporate greed
Wants suffocating basic needs

No-one ever died wishing
They’d spent more time on devices
Tapping and zooming and clicking and scrolling
Addicted, distracted, weary eyes rolling

No-one ever died wishing
They’d watched more television
Chewing gum soaps and horror show news-scenes
Neighbours unmet, strangers on widescreen

People die wishing
They’d stayed in touch with their friends
A phone call, a visit, some time spent together
Knowing that you and they won’t live forever

People die wishing
They’d expressed how they felt
I’m sorry, I’m angry, I’m hurting, I love you
Opened a door for feelings to pass through

People die wishing
They’d taken risks, made decisions
Travelled, changed job, conquered their fears
Not stayed in a rut for so many years

People die wishing
They’d lived true to themselves
With authenticity and meaning
Sensation and feeling

Steven Shorrock (2018)

When I read this back, I ask myself how well I am doing in terms of the time I spend on the first half of the poem, and the time on the second. For many, the office is now the home (“No-one ever died wishing They’d stayed longer at the office”). The means of production are now embedded into smartphones that we spend hours looking at even when not ‘at work’ (“No-one ever died wishing They’d spent more time on devices”). We spend time generating and advertising résumé virtues, perhaps thinking these are the ones we will regret. Since we all have only 24 hours in each day, each hour given over is an hour sacrificed to something or someone else. Few people regret these things in their final moments. The things we regret are deeper, more difficult, typically involving inner work in eulogy virtues and reaching out. I find the following questions helpful:

  1. What matters to me at a deep level? What would I regret if I were not to do or express this?
  2. When am I going to give this some time in the coming week?

The following are some more specific questions:

  • What change to my life do I need to make for a deeper sense of meaning and wellbeing?
  • To whom do I need to say sorry and make amends?
  • To whom do I need to express gratitude?
  • Who do I need to forgive?
  • To whom do I feel a need to express a deep and persistent feeling?

These things often take little time (relative to the costs of not doing so), and time is not really the barrier that we like to imagine. More often, the issue is willingness.

The next question is how to do the things above in a compassionate and productive way. I find it helpful to think small, and make a first step into change and see how it goes, then another. Schedule the first step in the near future. The key thing is to overcome the fear, perfectionism and procrastination behind the hesitation to change or act. These are the enemies of change and the harbingers of regret.

Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.

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