Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. — Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
For a couple in our early twenties, this topic certainly isn’t something we’re expected to be dealing with. And while we’re not at the age where we should be getting our affairs in order or unburdening our families by checking into elderly homes, we can’t seem to shake the all-consuming reality that one day, neither of us will continue to persist on this planet.
As both a painter and writer, I often find myself overcome with desperate thoughts about how I can do better to get my work “out there” – to be celebrated and seen. Cultivating love for my work and my life usually falls second to momentary desires such as “being great” and having financial success. Often, I find myself holding back. I believe the stories I tell where I’m the victim. I constantly feel that I’m nowhere good enough to live my dreams.
A few weeks before my boyfriend turned 25, I’d often catch him meditating with tears in his eyes. Embracing a full quarter of a century of life shook him up. And while it may seem comical to some, for the first time, he felt old. He felt like he didn’t have enough time.
These thoughts are dark and they are serious, but they are also absolutely necessary. I know that they make us better. When I lash out, or when I’m too quick to judge myself or someone else, my boyfriend will gently remind me, “When it comes down to it, we’re all just desperately avoiding the fact that we’re going to die someday.”
That’s when I get quiet; when I rethink what’s right in front of me. Instead, I start to ask myself new questions: am I saturating my time with what I love? Am I leading a life that I’m proud to leave behind? This is when things start to get interesting. Almost immediately, I find myself getting to something deeper: I evaluate whether what I’m creating is a complete extension of my highest self, or a desperate attempt to escape the human fears I often feel.
After picking up Man’s Search for Meaning, my boyfriend’s favorite book, I’ve realized that most of us are in a state of avoidance. We hide from what we truly are. We “veg out” in our free time and eat terrible food to distract ourselves from the jobs we hate. We try to run away from the fact that nothing is permanent, and that we’re dedicating our precious time to things that don’t really matter.
If you had one week left to live your precious life, would you continue to check out in front of Netflix? Would you mindlessly stuff yourself with sugar? Would you obsessively keep tabs on who’s liking your photos on Instagram?
Acknowledging our impermanence is terrifying. But it’s also what we need to do if we’re going to live the lives we’ve always yearned for. Here’s how I live from my deathbed every single day:
Act like all you have is what’s right in front of you.
It’s morbid, but when I pretend there is only one week I have left to live, I instantly feel myself connecting to a deep sense of peace. I pause. I align myself with what’s in front of me. Immediately, I’m breathing deeper. I find myself blessing and praising when just a minute ago, I was complaining and cursing. Colors get brighter. Smells are sweeter. The ordinary becomes extraordinary when you slow yourself down and get real about the impermanence of everything. And, funnily enough, when I slow down enough to drink in every facet of the present moment, I find myself engrossed enough to go after what it is that I truly want. There is no more “tomorrow-ing.” There is only gratitude and a keen, new motivation to embody what’s right here right now.
Get real with what you’re avoiding.
What do you want? What do you really want with every cell in your body? It may be that you don’t actually want to be the nurse, teacher, paralegal or marketer that you’ve always been. With one week left to live, would you take that trip? Climb a mountain? Quit the gym membership you never use to afford the voice lessons you’ve always dreamed of taking? You might be surprised with what you come up with. Often, when I ask myself what I really want, it has more to do with what’s right in front of me. Vacations are great, but so is dancing in your bathroom while you’re getting ready for work.
Take inspired action.
When I live like I’m going to die, I find that I’m less likely to play the victim of my life “happening” to me: I’m suddenly the cause of my existence – not the effect. My motivation no longer comes from a reactionary place of trying to “fix” my seemingly broken life, but from an effortless new question: what would I love to do right now? The truth is, most of us are filling our lives up with thoughts of needing to get to the “next step” so we can be happy. The truth is, you’re enough right now. You always have been! Knowing that, what will you start doing? How are you going to seize the precious moment that’s right in front of you?
We don’t know how much time we have left. We’re all betting on a number we can’t see. You’re only guarantee is this instant: how can you make it worthy of your miraculous human life?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After graduating from Columbia University and living in New York City, Izzy Howell is dedicating her life to redefining the kind of success that twenty-somethings are expected to embody. As both a painter and writer, she strives to create work that inspires others to live the life they’ve always dreamed of. You can reach Izzy on Instagram @izzyhowell.