A few years ago I excitedly got on a trampoline for the first time since high school. Upon my first very normal rebound off the trampoline a wave of impact rippled through my joints, reverberating in my knees, hips, and up my back and neck. I stopped dead. Holy shit, I said out loud, that’s not at all how it used to feel. That’s when I realized, I’m getting older.
That was three years ago. I’m 26 now and my own fragility has only become more apparent. Now, I recognize that 26 is not old, and if you’re much older than me you may be scoffing at my wimpiness. To clarify, it’s more the transition that I’m observing; compared to the carefree, resilient years of my childhood and teens, being in your 20s is the beginning of a confronting reality check—you are not invincible.
This new reality shows itself in big and small ways. Last year on a bike trip in Québec I had a small wipe out on a gravel path and scraped my knee. No big deal; it didn’t need much first aid, and didn’t inhibit the rest of my trip. But I was astounded when it took more than a month for it to heal, and a year later I can still see the white-ish mark where it had been. It’s possible that it always took that long to heal from simple injuries and I just never noticed, but it seems to me like my body’s ability to bounce back is a little bit less impressive than it used to be.
I also feel myself being more cautious than I was even just a few years ago. On my first trip to India, I was pretty well convinced that I could get through most things that might occur on my trip. As a passenger on the chaotic and dangerous roads of India, I acknowledged that I may very well die during that ride, but was able to mostly let it go. In planning for this trip, however, I found myself considering the odds of being in a car accident or train accident pretty seriously. It didn’t keep me from traveling, but it was a lot more apparent and disconcerting than it had been last time.More confronting has been seeing some of my friends and loved ones affected by serious illnesses, accidents, and the realities of aging. Every time something terrible happens I find myself thinking about what I want in life, and whether I’d do anything differently if I knew I was going to die sometime soon.
Since I’m on what looks like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, it may or may not surprise you that I would change what I’m doing entirely if I knew I was going to die in a month or two; I’d go home to be with family and friends. If I knew I was going to die in a year, I might keep traveling, but I’d want to do it with loved ones if at all possible. Clearly, if my priorities were set in order by a life-threatening event, I would lean way more toward relationships and connection, and away from seemingly frivolous adventuring.
Meanwhile, with the optimistic assumption that I’ll get to live another several decades, I see obvious inherent value in the trip that I’m on. In the long-term this kind of open-ended exploration is an adventure, a challenge, and an investment in my future self.
I’m left with a bit of a riddle then: How might I balance the liberating YOLO (You Only Live Once) mentality that often goes along with youthfulness and traveling with my desire to live a long, thoughtful and fulfilling life?
Let’s think this through then. Along with going home, what would I do if I knew I only had two months to live?
- I’d say yes more, just to see what would happen.
- I’d probably go get those tattoos I’ve been thinking about for a while.
- I’d stop giving a single shit whether people like my true, vulnerable self.
- I’d start expressing myself fully, talk to more strangers, laugh more loudly, and cry more openly.
- I’d spend every single day with people that I loved and be present for every minute of it.
- I’d sing and dance to my music as I walked down the street.
- I’d tell people I loved them a whole lot more freely.
- I’d enjoy every sip of gorgeous coffee and eat my favourite foods as often as possible.
- I’d stop worrying about what job I’d have next and whether I’d make a good living. I’d just go find something interesting to do, maybe something that helps other people.
- I’d let go of my ego and apologize for things I’ve done, and forgive others for whatever pain they’ve caused me.
- I’d knock down these walls I keep up to protect myself from the people around me.
- I’d stop caring about how I thought I looked to other people. I wouldn’t care if I gained any weight and I’d wear whatever the hell I wanted. Maybe I’d dye my hair a lilac purple.
- I’d be terribly sad that I’d never be a mother, and that I wouldn’t grow old with someone. I’d be sad not to see my sister and friends do the same.
Sounds pretty great, minus the last point (and other obvious downsides of having only two months to live). In fact, sounds like a number of cliché-sounding pop songs from the last several years. There’s also a great (in my opinion) show on Netflix called No Tomorrow that plays out the scenario of having eight months to live and checking off everything on your bucket list in true YOLO style. It’s clearly pretty easy to buy into the idea of living like today was your last day.
Yet it seems to me that we rarely live like this for very long. Why? Because most of us have longer-term visions for our lives than the next few days or months. And that’s a good thing. I personally think saving for retirement is a pretty good idea, never mind the regret that might come along with those tattoos you got when you told yourself to live in the moment. A character on that No Tomorrow show runs up his credit card care-free so that he can live life to its fullest. That’s not exactly sustainable.
It can also be pretty exhausting to maintain the belief that you might die at any moment. Adrenaline isn’t meant to hang around that long in your body, and emotionally it can be pretty draining. So should we do something about the insights we have when we’re reminded of our own mortality? How might we balance living like we actually appreciate each moment with looking ahead and investing our time and energy in the futures we want? I don’t have answers for this, but I think a big part of living within this balance is realizing that we (likely) have a lot more choice in how we live our lives than we think.
Over the last several months it’s really started to sink in that there are so many ways to live our lives. While I’ve worked within the assumption that my life generally plays out in an office, there are people out there who make their livings on YouTube, or by writing for magazines, farming, making movies, running a restaurant, teaching Pilates, or helping others settle in a new country. Some spend their whole lives traveling and working online, and others spend their lives raising kids and volunteering in their communities. Some dedicate themselves to public service, and others to storytelling, artistic expression, or pushing themselves to the edge of their physical abilities. While most of us won’t have a career on YouTube, thinking about these options makes it clear: the rules and expectations we live within most of the time are pretty much made up, by ourselves, our families, and our societies. The more we can step out of our bubbles and see our assumptions about life for what they are the more we can build our lives more freely and intentionally toward the things that really matter to us.
For example, professional success and earning a decent living are pretty important to me. But when I reflect on how much they drive my life, I realize that I’ve got pretty shaky definitions of success in these two arenas: I don’t actually know how much money is enough; and I have a fairly limited definition of professional success. More importantly, these two things aren’t ultimately what I’m after. What I’m really interested in is what they offer me: freedom to choose; safety and security security; the ability to provide for a family; the ability to enjoy my leisure time and relationships; interesting things to work on; the ability to change course and u-turn if I want to; and the ability to explore my passions and curiosity. With this clarity, it’s starting to sound like an office job and linear professional accomplishments aren’t necessarily the only way to achieve these things. As a prof of mine used to say, what’s the next right answer?
Sure, one of my possible futures has me working in an office, continuing the professional trajectory that I’ve allowed to be a driving force in my life. But in other futures my next step looks a lot more fluid than that. Maybe I’ll find a job online that allows me to travel and volunteer in interesting places. Or maybe I’ll explore my own country, teaching yoga and serving tables from coast to coast. Maybe I’ll find an inspiring organization to work with for a year or two and then take a sabbatical, much like right now. Maybe I’ll finally become fluent in French and bike across France. Maybe I’ll find myself having a baby in the next couple years, or maybe I’ll find myself in grad school.
For me, it’s taken some time and space from the life I used to lead to start seeing these options, and honestly, they’re still pretty tame. But I hope that I can maintain and develop this mindset, and have faith in myself that I can find and create the life I want to lead regardless of which path I take.
Fortunately, finding a fulfilling balance in life doesn’t have to be expensive or dangerous. Many of the items on my two-months-to-live list above are, in fact, danger free. For example, I don’t have to run up a credit card or risk my life to express myself more openly and lovingly to those around me. While a lack of deadline makes some of these items a whole lot more scary (for me anyway), I know that challenging myself to be more vulnerable and courageous will pay off both today and decades from now, even if it sometimes makes me uncomfortable.
Sometimes when I’m having a rough time, feeling full of doubt, or completely lost or uninspired, I imagine 80-year-old me looking back on this time of her life with fondness, gratitude and wisdom. I hear her tell stories to her friends and grandkids about that time she took a risk that was probably stupid but led to an incredible adventure. Or that time she fucked up at work and thought the world was crashing down only to discover that life is so much bigger than that. Or that time she swallowed her pride and told someone she loved them even though it made her cry. I’m inspired by 80-year-old me, because she knows from experience that there are far fewer rules than she thought there were at 26.
We all have those people in our lives, or at least on social media, who inspire us with their courage, vulnerability, and openness to others (or whatever characteristics you want to take up yourself). What do you think helps them do this? How might we be more courageous despite a lack of pressure and liberation offered by an explicit mortal deadline? How do you find the sweet spot between living like you’ll die tomorrow and several decades from now?