I recently took part in a team-building event that included a session at which we were asked to answer a life question: “If you could know something today about your future, what would it be?”
Seated in pairs, each person had one minute in which to respond to the questions presented. This seemed a particularly tough one to process in such a short time.
My partner kindly invited me to go first and, after giving the question some brief thought, I replied, “I’d like to know when I’ll die – I think I’d find it reassuring.” Understandably, I was asked to elaborate on why I’d want an answer to a question many people prefer to avoid.
“Well, if I get to last until I’m 70 or 80, then I can pour all my energies into living a meaningful life without needing to wonder what’s around the corner. But if I’m to die within the next week or so, I can give up my gym membership and spend the savings on Famous Amos cookies and Baskin Robbins ice-cream.”
The question – and my frivolous response – unexpectedly triggered a memory of mine from the time that my mother was dying. She was a woman who was both mentally determined and physically strong. In the year before her death, she ran a half-marathon for charity without any training (she had never run before) and would often put me to shame by matching – and sometimes exceeding – my weightlifting exercises.
“Mind over matter” was one of her favourite and frequent sayings.
As readers who have lost loved ones will appreciate, it was tough for me to watch an incredibly strong, defiant woman losing both her mental and physical presence over the course of her short illness. She wanted to stay home, and so my sisters, my dad and I saw the whole process unfold over a matter of weeks.
When she found out about her illness, she and I had some meaningful chats while she was still well enough. During one conversation she said, “Life isn’t something you really think about until it’s almost gone. It’s the hardest thing to understand, the toughest thing to let go, and the one thing we forget to be thankful for.”
At any other time, her words might have seemed to be merely a nice expression; however, in this context, they carried much more weight than usual. In these final conversations, I paid closer attention than usual to her words, not knowing which conversation would be the last one.
Our chat reminded me of a story often told by students of the late Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah. Considered to be an enlightened monk, he was once asked what he understood about the nature of life. He replied, “You see this glass? For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it, I drink out of it. It holds the water admirably and, when the light hits it just right, it gives beautiful reflections. When I hit it with my finger, it gives a lovely sound.
“But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over, or my elbow brushes it and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course’. When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”
When my mum died, I was naturally devastated, but I was also grateful for three things. First, that her suffering had ended; second, that I was blessed to have had her in my life at all (feeling that I’d gained much more from her in life than I’d lost in her death); and third, that I’d been reminded that life is a privilege to be cherished rather than a right to be expected.
In the following weeks, I recalled how shallow her breathing had become towards the end, and so I made sure to take a few deep, grateful breaths before I went to sleep each night, and silently thanked her for all that she’d given me. My mother was no saint but, like most parents, she did her best and got it right more times than not. It’s a shame many of us don’t realise this earlier about our loved ones.
Like Ajahn Chah’s glass, our lives are already broken, which is to say that they are bound to end. With that in mind, if I could go back and answer that question that was asked at the team-building event, I’d respond differently.
I’d like to know that my future self was satisfied with his journey so far, knowing that he’d made the most of the opportunity to live a life of purpose, fully appreciating the people in his life and the countless blessings he continues to receive. Reassuringly, as I finish that last sentence, I can almost hear my mother asking me, “And where do you think your future self begins?”