A woman is going about her life. She believes what she was told about making goals and plans for her future. She allowed herself an appropriate number of years to be carefree before getting tied down. Then she started to get serious about a career. Started making more responsible choices which would pave the way to starting a family, buying a home, upgrading that home, and eventually retiring with a comfortable safety net.
But somewhere in there she gets lost. She’s on the treadmill and maybe she knows it and hates it; or maybe she isn’t really aware of it, just has this sense of malaise; or perhaps she struggles with depression.
Then something shocks her to the core: Death. Someone very close to her, maybe even her. Someone in her family dies. Or she almost dies. Suddenly, all of her carefully laid plans are in ruins. More than that, she realizes that all of her meticulous efforts at creating an ordered life can be obliterated in a heartbeat.
Her entire Life, her entire perception of Life, is shaken apart. For days, weeks, months, she feels uprooted. Her plan clearly isn’t going to help her anymore. So now what?
It is common after such an awakening to reevaluate our priorities. And for many people we realize that our jobs, our retirement funds, pleasing others at our expense, and consistently punching the clock every day are not the things that create a fulfilling Life.
We promise ourselves to slow down, to spend more time with the people we love, to tell them we love them more, to stop and smell the roses. We worry less about pleasing our boss; we worry less about pleasing others in general. Many completely overhaul their lives leaving jobs, relationships, and homes that no longer serve them and bring them fulfillment; situations that they stayed in out of fear or habit.
They are spurred on by a sense of urgency, a desire to spend every day as if it’s their last and not waste it on something demeaning, demoralizing, or just plain unchallenging, because in truth every day may be our last.
This is a common theme. I’ve experienced variations of it myself, as has my extended family. My son’s cancer diagnosis a few years ago, and my young niece dying from cancer three years ago, continue to have reverberations.
The changes to my life were certainly more pronounced initially, and are probably not very obvious to an outsider. But I am far more aware of my heart connection to my son, his wife, and my nieces and nephews. I don’t reach out to them with messages of love as often as I did initially, but their wellbeing is more important to me now than ever. And I want to make sure that they know of my unconditional love for them.
My changes were not in any way exuberant or about chasing stifled dreams. I’d already been doing that – because I had my son at an early age, as soon as he finished school I struck out to explore and challenge myself. But also, when I got the news about my son’s cancer I was in the midst of the most debilitating time of my PTSD. I already knew that I needed to find a new way to earn an income after leaving my career as a park ranger, knew that I wanting to be near my son and be a part of his life – and – changes in my life happened very, very slowly.
It makes sense that after realizing death could derail our plans, or take us at any time, we might reprioritize our lives and even feel reinvigorated as we pursue things we hadn’t dared to pursue before.
But here is what I’m most curious about: what happens over time? I would guess that for most people, this reprioritization and reinvigorated lifestyle isn’t sustainable. Financially for one, but also that level of energy, uncertainty, and risk-taking can be exhausting and stressful. I wonder how hard it is, for many, to maintain that sense of living life as if every day is their last.
So for these people who have looked Death in the face, what do their lives look like in six months? One year? Two? Five? Ten? Twenty?
How many do in fact maintain a complete restructuring of their lives, based on this realization that their priorities were not fulfilling? How many unconsciously start settling back into old habits? How many actually fall into a depression, straddling this new knowledge, but uncertain what to do with it or how to go about redesigning their lives?
As I mentioned, my shock happened in the midst of a mental health crisis. It did not in any way diminish the shock, but it did slow down my ability to reorder my life. I wanted to immediately move to where my son was, to be near him. It took nearly two years before I was emotionally and financially able to do so.
Since then, and as a result of my deliberate reprioritizing, I have been living in a travel trailer which significantly decreases my cost of living while increasing my mobility. While living in trailer parks can be inhibiting especially with pets, living in a trailer has overall been beneficial. My home environment is cheerful and cozy, my lower cost of living gives me more flexibility, and I have peace of mind knowing I could easily pack up and move if necessary.
I’ve been finding ways to make an income; getting familiar with what does and doesn’t work with my new needs and priorities has been a long and slow (and lean) process, but the rewards are starting to pay off. For someone who really understands that tomorrow is not guaranteed, I don’t spend enough time outside, in nature, walking or stretching. I worry and obsess too much. Even though we live in the same town, I don’t visit my son as often as I’d like, or my other extended family.
But in some extraordinary ways, I’ve redesigned my life to make all of those choices more accessible. And part of my process is learning to do things at my own pace. While it may not appear from the outside that much is going on, a lot of important work is happening both internally and externally.
With slow small steps, every day, I free up more of myself to connect with Life.