“We are all dying, some sooner, some later. The real exception is to truly live.”
—Lee Lipsenthal, Enjoy Every Sandwich
Imagine you’ve just been told that you have less than six months to live.
What do you need to do?
Who do you need to talk to?
Where do you need to visit?
How will you spend your remaining time?
These are all questions that Lee Lipsenthal (left) recently asked me and several of our friends after he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As he led us through a visualization of our own deaths—and of our lives lived with such an imagined diagnosis hanging over us—I was profoundly struck by three things.
1. I was somewhat relieved to be dying.
This realization was shocking, and, frankly, kind of embarrassing. It isn’t that I’m unhappy with my life—far from it. It’s just that my imagined diagnosis and impending death released me from all the things I felt I should do, that I must do in my everyday life.
If I was dying, I no longer needed to worry about paying the bills or arranging the carpool schedule or finding time to pick the apples off the tree before they fall off and rot. I could just do whatever I really wanted to do.
Which raised a good question: What was it that I really wanted to do in my last six months of life?
2. It turns out, I had no bucket list.
Given license to do anything I wanted in the world, I pretty much just wanted to hang out with my kids reading Harry Potter. (How could I die without getting to the end of the series? I simply couldn’t.)
I could think of exciting things that I should want to do, and that, given a long life, I do hope to do someday. But if I only had six months to live? I’d want to read cooking magazines and spend more time with my brother and his wife. I’d want mundane things, like playdates for my kids (I love their friends). I would hang out with my closest girlfriends and favorite couples, preferably in a hot tub, all the time.
These are things I already do, though less than I’d like. They are everyday things, not bucket-list things.
It’s not that I don’t want to go to cooking school in Thailand—believe me, I do. But what I wanted more was to enjoy driving the carpool and paying the bills.
3. I could enjoy the things on my task list that I currently dread.
Just as I don’t think that we should be happy all the time, I realized that I live under the assumption that part of life is just, well, unpleasant. More than that, it’s stressful.
When I realized that I would no longer feel stress if I were dying—for crying out loud, why worry about when my estimated taxes are due or about missing an important meeting—I had an epiphany: The stress was all in my head.
It isn’t that I would stop paying my taxes or caring for my children or doing my job if I only had six months left. It’s just that I wouldn’t worry about those things: I’d do them with a hearty dose of faith that life is unfolding exactly as it is meant to. Missed the plane? I could find a reason to accept or even embrace this as I catch the next flight.
The idea that stress, or suffering, is optional is not a new concept for me. Stress and busyness were my illness, my diagnosis, and if you’ve been reading this blog or watching the videos on it, you know that I have clearly built elaborate coping skills and “cures” for managing my stress.
But imagining my life as if I were dying made me appreciate something that Lee describes in his wonderful forthcoming book, Enjoy Every Sandwich:
“Some cures require a radical intervention of the soul: a change in our mindset and our way of being. These cures require us to stop racing through our busy lives, working, providing, and consuming. Some cures require that we stop and enjoy every sandwich.”
So simple, and so obvious, and yet also so profoundly transformational for me. Sure, I’d been trying to enjoy every sandwich before. But with all the other stresses in my life, sometimes that was like trying to read in a very dimly lit room.
Lee passed away on September 20th of esophogial cancer. As my colleagues and I were reflecting recently on the impact Lee had on us, one of his good friends, a Buddhist teacher, noted that “any teaching from any teacher is only valuable if you reflect on its meaning and integrate it into your life.”
Something about Lee’s magical presence helped us integrate insights (that many of us had actually already been teaching for years) into our lives in new ways. For me, Lee’s life—and death—was nothing short of a “radical intervention of the soul.” He is deeply missed by his friends and family and his students everywhere.
Lee was scheduled to speak at the Greater Good Science Center’s Science of a Meaningful Life event this Saturday, October 15th. I will be speaking in Lee’s absence, about all I learned from him.
© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.