“Being Mortal”, a book by Atul Gawande on Medicine and What Matters in the End asks relevant questions for all of us at any age, not just at the end of life. I peruse through the pages while I bike almost languidly on the stationery bicycle in the gym. Every so often, I would glimpse the huffing and puffing of the gray haired man next to me or at a distance someone lifting more weight than can easily be lifted. The author has found these questions to elderly patients who have to make major decisions around surgery, terminal cancer treatment options to hospice choices more valuable than simply being Dr. Informative. There is a lot to be garnered when we actually listen to another in telling us how they want to spend the remaining days or weeks of their lives. His questions are: What are your biggest fears and concerns? What goals are most important to you? What trade-offs are you willing to make, and what ones are you not? What if we ask them now at a younger age when our health are relatively intact, before the decline? Would our lives change? Would there be more of a purpose to our daily choices? Would we not relinquish joy so carelessly, and post phone spending time with loved ones? Would we be so focused on individuation or would we be more inclusive of wider circles of support and care? In other words, would we switch from “me” to “we”?
Over the years, I often ask elderly folks as they look at their lives, what stood out to them the most. Almost exclusively, the response was about the love they gave!! If they had to redo it again, they said they’d work less and spend more time with loved ones.
I was fortunate that at the age of 21 years old, I posited looking at my goals and decisions at that point from the perspective of an 80 year old woman looking back at her life. What would she have done at 21 then? Sometimes I feel that we postpone many valuable concerns and dreams we have for tomorrow, next year, after the kids are gone, when we retire and before we know it a tombstone had been erected on our supine lifeless body. I saw this comic strip depicting this as a teenager and it mortified me. Dreams don’t always stick around with us, unfortunately. They die too, especially when they are not watered.
To many in my life, I may have appeared impestuous and impulsive. I took many risks and lived outside the box of financial security and status. I wanted to taste life and I did. I remember even in high school choosing to run the hurdles for the track and field team. There was something about flying in the air while running very fast across the hurdles. There was freedom in the precision (if you were a few centimeters off, you’d fall flat on your face and groin!), a visceral knowing that I had the strength and the power to do it. I have always felt this immense internal energy and to express it in forms have always fascinated me. At that age, I had a lot of vitality. At other times, it was through art or teaching or in the field of healing the expression manifested. The deep curiosity for aliveness never ceases. To see how far I can go had its merits for sure. Yet now at the gym as I row a little more vigorously, I hit those places where my strength gives out and I ride on sheer will power. I dream myself rowing one day on the open waters where the wind can be felt against my face and the wide horizon beckons.
I have always been a deep thinker. As a child, my mother was very concerned about this quality of mine. Perhaps, I already knew back then that life is short and even if we were to live a hundred, it would still go by in an instant. I used to think I would like to die in a quick manner. Then I spent many years in chronic illness and I developed immensely as a human being from these struggles. I understood why wise dharma teachers ask to have a long life. I have clients who asks of me for secure answers. I can’t fix that life is inherently unstable, changing and insecure. We each can cultivate our hearts that when struggle comes in whatever form, we have the willingness to accept it so as just the nature of life. Within that acceptance, death becomes just another moment. May each of us be in each moment with more grace.