Looking good

Could it be that it’s time for you to give up looking good so you can be real instead?

I’m not saying this lightly.

Five summers ago, I found myself rendered momentarily speechless, mid-conversation, as a dear friend and I walked together for lunch. A few minutes later, flat on my back on the pavement, heart pounding, short of breath, mind racing.

I knew for certain only after a few days – but had an inkling as it happened – that an undiagnosed blood clot that had been forming in my leg for some time had at that moment broken loose from its moorings.

Terror, love, longing, hope, confusion.

I called home while we waited for the paramedics to arrive.

“I’m fine,” I said. “There’s nothing to be worried about”.

Not, “I’m scared.”. Not, “Please help me”. Not, “I don’t know if I’m going to be ok”.

“I’m fine”.

It was a hot June afternoon, blue skies, but there must have been clouds as I remember watching a seagull wheel high overhead against a background of grey-white.

“I’m fine”.

Just when I most needed help and connection I played my most familiar, habitual ‘looking good’ hand – making sure others around me had nothing to be worried about. A hand I’ve played repeatedly since I was a child.

Even in the most obviously life-threatening situation I had yet experienced: “I’m fine”. Too afraid to be seen for real, to be seen as something other than my carefully nurtured image of myself.

It was there, on the pavement, that I started to understand in a new way the cost of holding myself back from those I most care about; the power and necessity of vulnerability and sincerity; that my humanity, with all its cracks, complexity and fragility, is a gift to others, not a burden.

I began to see that the realness I treasured in the people who love me the most was my responsibility too – a necessary duty of loving in return.

I’m still learning, slowly, how to fully show myself.

One step at a time.

And I’m learning, too, that sometimes we’ll carry on trying to look good, even if it has the potential to ruin our lives as we do so.

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On the side of life

How about we get on the side of life, which means not being on the side of death?

The side of life: taking ourselves seriously, which means taking seriously all of these and more: aliveness, vibrancy, intimacy, vulnerability, openness, courage, integrity, play, joy, anger, sadness, dignity, compassion, wisdom, uncertainty, fear and freedom.

The side of death: turning away, suppressing, denying, avoiding, constraining, limiting or controlling anything on the side of life.

The side of death is alluring, comforting even. Deadening ourselves means we won’t have to feel what we don’t want to feel, or experience what we don’t want to experience. And perhaps if we can deaden others, they won’t bring us any of that either.

If we’re unlucky, we can live a whole life on the side of death, perhaps only waking up to life when it’s too late (see Tolstoy’s short novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich for a stunning account of just this).

Whole organisations – their structures, processes, practices – can be dedicated to the side of death too (the difficulty here is that the side of death looks so respectable, so reasonable).

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Life is never out of our reach, even in trying circumstances.

And the good news is that there are many people, and many organisations, whose commitment to life shines strongly, and who are just dying to share with us what they know.

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The end of things

Walking among tall oaks in London’s Hyde Park, my thoughts turn towards the end of things. Leaves are falling, their curled crisp edges crunching beneath my boots. There are still many trees clothed in green. The end of this will come soon, I can see, leaving the dark shape of curling branches clear against the sky.

One day, each of these trees, too, will be gone.

It is a relief to know that this is how it is. That things come to an end. Quite naturally. Quite ordinarily. And that it is true for us too.

How many mornings I have awoken with such deep lonely sadness at all this. That I will lose myself. That I will lose all of my faculties. That I will lose everyone I love, and they will lose all this too. That all this has already begun.

But here, among the trees, I am gladdened. Losing it all is not my fate alone. It is not a gross unfairness visited upon me. It is not something I always need to mourn. It is the way of life, and always has been. It is the condition of humanity, and always will be.

I am joined in this path by every living thing that has ever existed, and every living thing that will exist. I am unified with all of life, indivisible from it.

Yes, deep sadness at how all of this ends has its place, reminding me how I long to live and how much there is to lose. But equally appropriate is joy, and wonder, exhilaration and radical amazement that any of this is happening. That I get to take part. That I am, for now, here.

My heart quickens and my eyes widen at the beauty and fragility of life, at its preciousness, at how fleeting it is. I see that there is no time to waste. There is so much to do, so much I can do. Whatever contribution I am here to make, now is the time. Every moment until now has been preparation for this. Every moment to come, however many or few, calls with the promise and possibility of participation in life’s grand, beautiful, tragic, surprising, endlessly creative unfolding.

It is time, as it always is, to begin.

A difficult time with choice

We have a difficult time with choice (or, at least, with choosing) because we have a difficult time with death.

Choosing always involves the death of what is not chosen. The death of a possibility. The death of a particular future that will, now, not be.

And because choosing requires us to face death, many of us would rather not choose at all.

And then we can only live a life that is never quite our own, because in the absence of our own choice everything is effectively being chosen for us. There’s no less death here – we’ve simply turned our face away from it.

But there is much less dignity, and much less responsibility.

Stepping into our lives means, inevitably, that we step also into the death of things.

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Numbered

Sometimes I remember that my days are numbered.

My days for working are numbered.
My days for seeing a cloudless sky are numbered.
My days are numbered for sitting beneath tall trees.
And my days are numbered for learning.

My days for holding the ones I love are numbered,
As are my days of kisses.
My days of anguish, fear, and longing – they too are numbered.
And my days of walking the crests of high hills.

My days of deep conversation with friends and colleagues are numbered
And the days on which I can make a dent on the world.
My days for inventing, creating, demolishing, undoing, subverting, contributing.
My days for mending and tearing apart.
My days of confusion.
My days of spreadsheets, keyboards, pens, paperclips.
My days for travelling by train, bus, boat, plane.
My days for reading, music, turning my face towards the stars, and washing the dishes.

My days of getting to know myself.
My days for understanding what life is.
My days for loving.
My days for knowing.
All of these, too.

I don’t think I can remember this all the time.
I am too forgetful for that.
Too easily absorbed in the work of the day.

But when I do remember, life shines with new depth and wonder.
And I find it much more straightforward
To do what I am here to do.

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Drowsiness is a red alert

In my research for yesterday’s post on our profound sleep crisis, I came across some startling work from Dr. William Dement of Stanford University’s Center of Excellence for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Sleep Disorders.

I had to tell you about it.

So many times in my life so far, in order to get somewhere that was important to me, I have continued to drive while feeling drowsy. It’s often seemed to me to be not too bad. ‘Just a little further’, I tell myself. Wind the windows down. Put some music on. Grip the wheel. Sip some water. I’ll soon be there.

Never again.

Dr Dement tells us we must treat drowsiness – which so many of us experience while driving – not as a sign of being a little tired but as a red alert, as the last step before falling asleep, not the first.

‘Drowsiness’, he tells us, ‘means you are seconds away from sleep.’

Although I say to myself I take safe driving seriously, I really didn’t understand the seriousness of this before. And I am shaken by the possible consequences of my self-reassurance, my denial of the seriousness of the situation, and my turning away from the wisdom of my own body.

Surely this, if anything, is a call to wake up.

‘Imagine what it could mean’, Dement says, ‘when you’re behind the wheel of a car driving on the highway. Drowsiness may mean you are seconds from a disaster.’

He continues – ‘If everyone responded as if it were an emergency when they became aware of feeling drowsy, an enormous amount of human suffering and catastrophic events would be avoided … Seconds away from sleep may mean seconds away from death.’

You can read more of Dr. Dement’s work on his website here, or read about his work and that of many others in the sleep section of Tony Schwartz’s wonderful book Be Excellent at Anything (previously titled The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working).

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Pay attention

If you read the news, speak to friends, look at what’s happening around you, it’s hard not to be reminded of the transience and fragility of life. And even if we manage to avoid disaster, accident or misfortune that ends our lives early – even with a long life – we are gone in the blink of an eye.

In the light of this it’s understandable that we’re spooked – rushing and spilling over ourselves to make a mark on the world, or numbing ourselves with our busyness. In the face of our own finitude the contemporary world affords us endless opportunities to scatter ourselves into a million projects and distractions.

But there are parallel paths available to us, that I think are worth returning to, often.

When you eat, just eat.

When you are with another, just be with them.

When you work, just work.

When you read, just read.

When you kiss, just kiss.

When you walk, just walk.

When you arrive in a place, look.

Stop, sometimes, to do nothing apart from paying attention, for longer than you can usually bear.

These are paths to putting things down – outer things, inner things – in order to be in contact with the life we are each in the midst of living, for a while. While we still have it.

None of this comes easily to most of us. We are so practiced at being in a billion places simultaneously. And so we have to consciously take our practice in the other direction. We’re called upon to practice simplicity. To practice being up to one thing at a time.

And to practice paying attention to the exquisite depth of what is, always, right here in front of us.

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Towards or away?

Watching Julianne Moore’s sensitive and touching portrayal of a women with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice, I’m struck by how much each of us stand to lose. Whether it occurs for us as the loss of our selves first, as it does for Alice, or in some other configuration, we’ll one day lose all of our relationships, all of our possessions, all of our stories.

We’ll lose trees and buses, boring train journeys, washing the dishes, music, kisses, worrying about money, sun-filled afternoons, drawing, gazing into the eyes of another, learning, the saltiness of the ocean, tax returns, earache, job titles, paperclips, mountains.

It’s the knowing that Alice’s departure awaits all of us, though in wildly varying forms, that makes watching it so tender and so affecting.

And it raises a question for all of us – what to do with this knowledge?

Surrender and despair because nothing ever works out anyway?

Open ever more widely to the wonder of the life that is here already?

Make ourselves feel strong, impenetrable, holding rigidly onto our ideas and fighting away what scares us?

Retreat into a world of banal distraction, turning into what’s trivial because it soothes us?

Build towers and edifices – real or symbolic – so that our names are never forgotten?

Damage and destroy others, using our destructive power to give us the feel of conquering death?

Open ever more to the knowledge that we’re all – all of us – in this together and act from there?

It seems to me that we’re always in the midst of choosing one of these responses, or others like them, whether we’re paying attention to our choices or not. And the kind of life we lead will flow, in significant part, from the way in which we choose to run from life and death, and from the way we choose to turn towards them.

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Remembering and forgetting

What a miracle our consciousness is.

That an assemblage of matter, atoms and molecules, earth and stardust, coheres into cells – entities with processes and membranes and the capacity to produce themselves, and cells into organs…

… and that those cohere into a living, breathing, thinking being that can experience itself as alive, and think about itself, and take conscious deliberate action…

… that we can have other people and what happens matter to us…

… that we experience joy and love and grief and disappointment…

… that we can choose and speak, move ourselves and others to action, create and build and make and destroy, teach and play and invent and compose and undo ourselves…

… that we form relationships, communities, organisations…

… that we make worlds.

Maybe it’s only when we come into first-hand contact with death that we appreciate all at once what a miracle any of this is. And most of us do not come often into such contact directly. We are hardly in touch with the inevitability of our own end. Death is a rumour, a whisper, a great silence of which we are reminded only occasionally. It is, mostly, what happens to others.

I am coming to see that when I forget death I also forget how improbable any of this is. I forget that my body lives and that I live because of it.

It feels safer that way.

In my forgetfulness I am quickly distanced from the realness of things. I try fit in, to be liked, to avoid judgement, to stay within familiar horizons. I hold back. I retreat into the security of my own mind, where my suppositions and judgements of people can not so easily be tested. I become concerned with looking good. I get distracted, reaching repeatedly and automatically for what feels recognisable, for what will soothe me. But in order to shield myself from death something has to die and freeze and become very small within me.

I’m gradually finding out that the miracle of my own consciousness and the consciousness of others comes with a compelling responsibility to take care of life – to turn away from automatic pilot, and towards creativity, compassion, fierceness, love. Away from distraction and towards being present. Away from disconnection and towards listening deeply and speaking out. Away from denial and towards what’s true.

Towards life itself.

Because in my forgetfulness I also forget – and oh so quickly I forget – just how soon this miracle will be over for me, and for you, and for everyone we know.

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The very last time you’ll hear her

What kind of attention would you pay to the person speaking with you right now, if you really understood that this could be the very last time you’ll ever get to hear her? If you understood how temporary, how fleeting, and how unpredictable human life is, despite all our attempts to control and secure and have ourselves feel safe?

If you really understood this, would you allow yourself to tune out, to defend, to hold back from others as much as you do? Or would you do whatever you could to open yourself, to be here, and allow yourself to be affected by what other people are bringing you?

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Ending

If you really understood that it would all end

… you, your life, and all your relationships

… and the life of everyone around you

… every company you ever worked for, every project you put your hand to

… everything you leave behind

If you really understood this, would you lead or manage others the way you do? Work the way you do? Live the way you do?

And if not, how would you lead, work and live – in the full knowledge of endings – instead?

Photo Credit: Kate Atkinson

Of sand and stars and time

I’m sitting on the beach at Mar de Jade on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

The sun is setting, fire-red, turquoise, slate. The stones and sand, still warm. About twenty feet from where I’m sitting I can see the occasional silhouettes of fish leaping from the water. And further, westwards, a group of pelicans are circling, sharp against the twilight. Each, as if taking turns, chooses a moment to furl its wings and dive into the waves before climbing, fish-laden, to join the others. I sit for nearly an hour, as the sky darkens. The pelicans wheel to the south. The tall lights of distant boats come into view.

This moment, with its tender joyful sadness, sings to me of sand and stars, of friends who are here with me, and of my family far away and back home on another side of the world.

I remember the feeling of such places from my childhood – the easy feel of being swept up into an endless and timeless landscape, wondrous and vast. And today, in my forty-fifth year, the same wonder tugs at me.

But from this part of life it’s different from before. I can already feel the inevitability of losing all of this, one day and who knows when, for another kind of timelessness.

Photo by Justin Wise

Brighter than the sun

This week, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working.
This is from September 2013.

Sometimes, in the midst of all our striving, longing, and reaching, our building of towers and the making of names for ourselves, it’s important to remember that one day we will, with certainty, lose it all.

Some of this will happen piece by piece. We’ll gradually say goodbye to people as they leave life. We’ll realise, perhaps suddenly, that their presence in the world touched our hearts and lit up our eyes. We’ll find out that their worth is beyond words.

And for all of us, the loss will also come entirely at once – maybe at a time when we least expect it, before we can even know it’s happening – when it is ‘I’ who is leaving and it is others who have to say goodbye.

Some of us take a long time to find all this out, holding our inner gifts back from the world until we’re sure the time is just right – a time that may never come.

But others seem to live with this understanding so fully in their hearts it’s as if nothing is withheld. They’ve discovered that the point of life is life itself, and that each of us is simply another expression of life’s beauty and wonder. And from this understanding flows their kindness, their generosity and their wisdom, so that they shine brighter than the sun.

For Christy

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Choice and the death of things

We have a difficult time with choice (or, at least, with choosing) because we have a difficult time with death.

Choosing always involves the death of what is not chosen. The death of a possibility. The death of a particular future that will, now, not be.

And because choosing requires us to face death, many of us would rather not choose at all.

And then we can only live a life that is never quite our own, because in the absence of our own choice everything is effectively being chosen for us. There’s no less death here – we’ve simply turned our face away from it.

But there is much less dignity, and much less responsibility.

Stepping into our lives means, inevitably, that we step also into the death of things.

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Four truths

Three truths that you might be hiding from yourself:

  • You will grow old.
  • You will at some point, inevitably, get ill.
  • You, and all of us, will die – as do all our projects, our creations, and even, over time, all that which we thought would be our ‘legacy’.

Nobody escapes this. No balm, no cream, no status, no wishful thinking, no protestation of the unfairness of all of this will make a bit of difference. It is simply the way of the world.

You can run away from this realisation for only so long. And then you have to choose – will you turn towards life because of it, or away?

Because the fourth truth is simple:

  • Right now, you are alive.

What kind of life, leadership, relationship, work is produced from your turning away?

And what kind of life, what kind of leadership – what sort of fierce, practical loving-kindness – might be produced from living in the full knowledge that these four are the case, inevitably, for every single one of us?

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Looking good

Could it be that it’s time for you to give up looking good so you can be real instead?

I’m not saying this lightly.

Two summers ago, I found myself rendered momentarily speechless, mid-conversation, as a dear friend and I walked together for lunch. A few minutes later, flat on my back on the pavement, heart pounding, short of breath, mind racing.

I knew for certain only after a few days – but had an inkling as it happened – that an undiagnosed blood clot that had been forming in my leg for some time had at that moment broken loose from its moorings.

Terror, love, longing, hope, confusion.

I called home while we waited for the paramedics to arrive.

“I’m fine,” I said. “There’s nothing to be worried about”.

Not, “I’m scared.”. Not, “Please help me”. Not, “I don’t know if I’m going to be ok”.

“I’m fine”.

It was a hot June afternoon, blue skies, but there must have been clouds as I remember watching a seagull wheel high overhead against a background of grey-white.

“I’m fine”.

Just when I most needed help and connection I played my most familiar, habitual ‘looking good’ hand – making sure others around me had nothing to be worried about. A hand I’ve played repeatedly since I was a child.

Even in the most obviously life-threatening situation I had yet experienced: “I’m fine”. Too afraid to be seen for real, to be seen as something other than my carefully nurtured image of myself.

It was there, on the pavement, that I started to understand in a new way the cost of holding myself back from those I most care about; the power and necessity of vulnerability and sincerity; that my humanity, with all its cracks, complexity and fragility, is a gift to others, not a burden.

I began to see that the realness I treasured in the people who love me the most was my responsibility too – a necessary duty of loving in return.

I’m still learning, slowly, how to fully show myself.

One step at a time.

And I’m learning, too, that sometimes we’ll carry on trying to look good, even if it has the potential to ruin our lives as we do so.

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Your last week

My son asked me this evening how I would spend my time if I knew I had just one week to live.

On a mountainside, I said, or by the sea. With my closest family, and with my dearest friends. No question.

The conversation reminded me that very few of us ever discover in advance which is to be our last week. And we don’t get to find out which parts of life are actually the important parts, perhaps until they’re done.

And how important it can be to live, in each of our day-to-day choices, in the full knowledge that all this is the case, for all of us.

For a wonderful book on this topic see ‘A Year to Live‘ by Stephen Levine, a wise and courageous man who learned much about life through his dedication to supporting people in death. The book describes an experiment in conscious living – as if there are only 365 days left to go – and is beautiful, profound, and practical.

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Meeting the gatekeeper

In a famous story by Franz Kafka, a man who is searching for truth comes to a door, guarded by a powerful gatekeeper.

The two talk for a while, and the man discovers that what he seeks is within. But when he realises that this is only the first in a series of doors guarded by successively fierce and powerful gatekeepers, he decides to sit for a while and work out how he can obtain permission to enter.

The man sits, and he sits, occasionally striking up conversation with the gatekeeper, and the years pass. The man wonders what it will be like to eventually cross through the door, and why nobody else seems to have come by to gain entry.

And as the man finally reaches the end of his life – still waiting – the gatekeeper reaches out for the door. This door, he tells the man, was only for you, and now it is time for me to close it, for ever.

So much of our lives is exactly this way. Faced with a threshold to cross – as happens to each of us innumerable times – we easily hesitate. Waiting on the known side of the door feels so much better, and so much safer, for who knows what succession of trials and dangers awaits on the other side?

There, we will have to face our anxiety and fear, and an uncertain world in which much that we’ve come to rely on can no longer save us.

And while we know that our chances of living fully are much greater if we’re prepared to step in, we can see only how our lives would be safer staying just where we are, where the reassuring contours of the world as we know it can hold us.

And eventually, each of the doors in our life closes, as we knew they always would, and we find out that the safety of staying small, and quiet, and not bothering anyone – the safety of holding the horizons of the world tight and enclosing – was never any genuine safety at all.

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Brighter than the sun

Sometimes, in the midst of all our striving, longing, and reaching, our building of towers and the making of names for ourselves, it’s important to remember that one day we will, with certainty, lose it all.

Some of this will happen piece by piece. We’ll gradually say goodbye to people as they leave life. We’ll realise, perhaps suddenly, that their presence in the world touched our hearts and lit up our eyes. We’ll find out that their worth is beyond words.

And for all of us, the loss will also come entirely at once – maybe at a time when we least expect it, before we can even know it’s happening – when it is ‘I’ who is leaving and it is others who have to say goodbye.

Some of us take a long time to find all this out, holding our inner gifts back from the world until we’re sure the time is just right – a time that may never come.

But others seem to live with this understanding so fully in their hearts it’s as if nothing is withheld. They’ve discovered that the point of life is life itself, and that each of us is simply another expression of life’s beauty and wonder. And from this understanding flows their kindness, their generosity and their wisdom, so that they shine brighter than the sun.

For Christy

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What we leave behind

My grandfather died nearly twenty years ago.

For most of his adult life he owned and ran a very small, very modest clothing shop in suburban North London, like many second-generation Jewish immigrants of his time. And as he grew older, his clientele grew older with him. No flashy refits or rebrandings to reach a wider audience. Just years of dedicated service to the people he’d served for so long already.

When he died, and we gathered around the graveside, I looked back to see a long line of mourners stretching back from the grave to the prayer hall. Many spoke of his care for them, of his commitment, and also of his friendship.

I realised then that he was leaving behind him something that many of us never achieve, but which is worth more than status, high office, the construction of big buildings, and the making of millions (each of which, certainly, have their worth). He left behind him scores of lives touched, for the better, by the kindness and constancy of his presence in the world.

And, I wonder, what would become possible if you worked on this alongside all the other important and ambitious projects you’ve dedicated yourself to already?

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For its own sake

In the end, nothing works out permanently.

Even the biggest, most robust organisations pass and fade away over time. Life as we know it keeps on changing, despite our best efforts to stop that happening. And eventually, all of us die, leaving everything we’d accumulated and created behind us. Before long, all of that disappears too.

So whatever you’re working on now, whatever glorious future plans and hopes you’re working towards, it would be worth checking that what you’re doing is also worth it for its own sake, regardless of how it turns out.

Because in the end, that it mattered at the time might be all that’s left.

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Biological

You might like to deny it, but there’s no way of escaping that you’re a biological being.

This means you’re subject to all of the realities of biological life. You were born, and one day you’ll die. You’ll get ill. You will age. You must eat, sleep, exercise and rest sufficiently. All this to maintain your capacity to move in the world, to allow your body to repair itself. And if you don’t, your strength and vitality will diminish more quickly than otherwise, atrophying over time. You’ll become prone to the diseases and ailments that your body was once able to defend itself against.

And because you’re also a mammal you will need nurturing relationships and connection with others – the foundation stone of what distinguishes mammals from all other creatures.

Because you’re human you need art, inspiration, music, beauty, meaning, community, and society.

You are not a machine, nor a brain simply carried around from meeting to meeting by your body. If you treat yourself as such, as seems to be called on by so many organisations, you’ll eventually and inescapably suffer the consequences.

And if you treat others as such, you’ll surely rob them of the greatest contribution they have to bring your organisation – the vibrancy and creativity of their life itself.

Ending

Everything you’re involved in, everything you’re committed to, everything you know – all of it will come to an end.

When you understand this, can you really continue in your detached, distracted way? Or keep holding back because of your fear? Or mute your voice and your contribution until you are sure that others will like it, and like you?

Surely, when you know that everything will come to an end the only response is to throw yourself deeply into what you care for, with both fiery commitment and a fierce, unshakeable compassion towards yourself and everyone around you.

What else could life and work possibly be for?

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Seeing them again

People leave life without warning more often than we care to consider.

If you really understood each time you say goodbye to your friends, your loved ones, your colleagues that you might not see them again, what space in your heart could you allow for:

resentment
bitterness
cynicism
grudges?

Would it not be more fitting to fill with gratitude for their presence in your life? To be amazed that the tiny chance that you would coexist actually came to pass? To treat them with kindness?

And if not now, when?

A harsh truth

In the end, all of us die.

We’ll lose all our relationships and all our possessions. As will everyone else we know.

What to do with all of this?

You could slip into a denial of life itself, as many people do. If it’s all going to end, and if you can’t have immortality for yourself, your ideas or your projects, you could lose yourself in a sea of triviality: toys, distractions, status symbols, diversions. You could numb yourself, turning away from life so you can avoid the anxiety of facing its finiteness. If you’ve never really lived, perhaps life’s end will exact less of a price.

Our you could try frantically to build, to make a mark so you’ll be remembered. At least this way it looks like you’ll have a way of cheating death. Inflate your ego, shout the loudest, build the tallest, be the richest, out-fame the famous. Make a name for yourself, whether for good or for ill. But, apart from for the tiny handful of people whose fame is enduring, within a couple of generations your name, all your achievements, what we take to be your legacy will be gone: all faded into the vast, anonymous, shifting background of human life.

The problem with both of these responses is that they put you at the centre of the world. They’re an attempt to force life to treat you on your terms alone, to give you what you want because you won’t take life as it is.

Instead, and more meaningfully, you could turn into the fierce heat of life itself. Understand that the point of life is life, and that you cannot be separated from it. Discover all the ways in which you are an expression of a process that is immeasurably bigger than you are and is at the same time undeniably part of you.

From here, the response to your own life’s finiteness is no longer cheating death but finding a way to contribute to life’s unfolding.

This calls on us to connect deeply with others, to contribute generously without knowing what will come from it, to find the courage that comes from openness and vulnerability, to speak out, to lessen suffering, to cultivate dignity, to seek wisdom, to create, to teach, to innovate, to serve. And to do all this as an expression of whatever work we’ve taken up in the world: running a business, founding corporations, mastering a profession, raising a family, inventing technology, leading a team, educating people, designing a product, investing in markets, delivering the numbers.

All of this is what makes possible living life not as a way of getting what you want, but as a contribution. And perhaps it’s also a way of living life as a work of art.

Dust and ashes

“Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a piece of paper. On one should be written: I am but dust and ashes, and on the other: The world was created for me.

From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each.”

Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha (1765-1827)

One moment, grandiosity:- I can do anything. I’m unstoppable.
The next, deflation:- I’ll be crushed by the world and the people around me.

Some people are more familiar with one than the other. But many of us bounce between them, thrown each way by circumstance: a stray thought, a memory, the look on someone’s face, another’s disapproval or approval, the weather, hitting a target, missing a deadline, lost keys, making a sale, an email subject line, a child’s cry.

Of course, neither of them are true, and the secret to living is knowing always how to remember this.

You are neither super-hero nor flea. You never were. You’re a human being – vast, contradictory, mysterious, talented, bounded, boundless and of inexplicable value.

Staring at the sun

‘Memento Mori’: a reminder of something so easily forgotten, that one day each of us will die.

Staring into the inevitability of our end with courage and clarity can be like looking into the brightness of the sun – almost unbearable. But having the courage to look again and again can bring us fully, searingly, vibrantly to life. And it can teach us much about what’s actually important.

That project that’s strayed from the plan, the hundreds of emails in your inbox, the irritation you feel at someone who didn’t do exactly what you expected; all look different in this light.

Perhaps what seemed so unquestionably central wasn’t that significant, after all.