In a deviation from my usual blog fare, I feel the need to share with you, my readers, about a very special seminar I attended this past week.
I’m currently finishing up my certification program for music education. At the moment, I’m about 1 1/2 weeks away from completing all student teaching requirements. Every week, we are required to attend a 2-hour seminar on Tuesday afternoons…a seminar which sits on the tail of a very long day for me. Typically, when I’ve attended these weekly meetings, I practice the art of sleeping with my eyes open. It in no way reflects my feelings towards the content presented in seminar (except the paper folding lesson…THAT was boring); I just usually am so mentally/physically exhausted that I have no choice but to take a brief power nap with eyelids fully opened. And that takes effort. (Apparently, after a Google search, people can actually do this!)
However, this Tuesday was different. We didn’t learn how to fold a circular piece of paper in 14 shapes (true story). We didn’t watch a teacher go nuts while dressed up as a witch (true story). Instead, our leader opted to deliver a life lesson to us all that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Before he began speaking, he handed out a salmon-colored piece of paper to everyone in the seminar. It looked a little something like this:
The paper had 4 boxes sectioned out, as you’ll see above, with absolutely no instructions. We didn’t need any; instead, we listened as our instructor began speaking:
I want you to imagine something: you’re at home, alone, when suddenly, the phone rings. It’s your doctor, and he doesn’t sound happy. He informs you that your last checkup allowed the hospital staff to diagnose you with Berry Berry Disease (because, it’s “berry berry bad”…we all laughed at this). You have the Beta strand, which means that in precisely 10 years to the day, you will drop down dead. At 5:23 PM on November 9th, you will cease to exist. You will be perfectly healthy up until that point, but 10 years from today, you will pass away.
Ah, we thought. We know what he’s getting at. He wants us to pick the most important things we’d like to accomplish throughout our lifetime…surfing in Hawaii, skydiving, getting married, traveling…making that one big contribution to the universe.
In your first box, please write down any and all things you would like to take care of in your remaining ten years. What do you want to do, what do you want to see, achieve, pursue? What do you need to take care of? Who do you need to take care of?
My first box looked a little like this:
Get married, have children, write a novel, travel every place I’ve ever wanted to go, buy a lake house, create the gourmet kitchen I’ve always want, make arrangements for family members, eat Big Macs WITH milkshakes, ask for extra chocolate with dessert…
Suffice it to say, I only took my first box partially seriously. Our next task, however, made it a bit harder. Our instructor continued:
Your doctor has called again. He has some more bad news. Turns out, you actually have the Alpha strand of the disease, and you’re only going to have two years to live. In two years on this day, you will die. Write down in your second box everything you want to accomplish in that time.
2 years?? My heart started quickening a bit. 2 years is certainly not enough time for me to achieve the things I’ve dreamed about: I want to get married! I want to actually find a groom for this marriage! And I want kids! Even just one booger-picking, cookie-tossing, goldfish-eating kid will do! I can’t do all of this in two years! I had to prioritize. I set to work on my second box:
Travel…EVERYWHERE, write a novel in a week, make arrangements with/for Mom after I die, live with no regrets, perform as much as possible, buy that Kitchen-Aid mixer and don’t look back, write letters more often, call up long lost friends, go out more often, visit family every month…
Okay, so maybe in the second box the inconsequential things were left to the wayside (except that Kitchen-Aid mixer…I don’t mess around with something like that). Still, the activity went on, as our instructor continued:
Ring, ring…it’s your doctor again. He has some really, really bad news this time. I don’t know how to tell you this, but you now have 4 weeks to live. I’m really sorry…please begin to make arrangements in your third box.
Holy hell…4 weeks? One month?
And here’s where the shift happens: when you begin to run out of time, you stop thinking about what you’d like to do, and start thinking about others first. What will happen to Mom? How will she survive this? My family? How can I inform them of this news? What about all my friends? I have to tell them how much they’ve meant to me. And my dog…someone responsible and loving will need to take care of her. How do I possibly attempt to let go of the people I love the most??
How do you say goodbye to a lifetime of relationships?
As I began writing in the third box, my throat tightened. Subtle tears began to well up in my eyes, but I fought against them. How silly, I thought, to get so emotional over a simple activity. I’m sure no one else is crying. I took a look around my group: at least 3 other people were starting to get choked up. Here’s what I wrote in box 3:
Surround myself with the people I love the most, quit all and any jobs, hold dinners every night for friends and/or family, sing as much as possible, write as much as possible, stay up late at night, sleep little, focus on relationships, call everyone and anyone that’s ever meant anything in my life, do things for other people, give of yourself…
Still, the fourth box loomed in the distance. I knew there was still more to this exercise. Our instructor’s last instructions came last:
I don’t know how to tell you this, but your doctor has called one final time. It’s not good: you now have only 2 hours to live. I don’t want you to fill out everything you need to take care of this time; everything will be worked out by your family. Instead, I want you to pick only one person to spend your last two hours with….
There are a few things I remember after hearing my instructor say this: I remember looking up at the clock…5:23. I remember silence around me, colleagues too numb to speak. And I remember feeling tears roll down my face. How…how could I pick one person to spend my last moments with? The choice was between two people…one a family member…one not…both loves of my life…why should I ever be made to choose between them? How do I pick? How can I leave one person I’ve known all my life for one I’ve only really known for about 2 years? How can I pick to NEVER see one of them again?
The knot in my throat tightened. Tears were now freely streaming down my face…along with 2 other members in my group. I don’t normally cry in public, but I had no defense this afternoon. The thoughts of leaving these two incredible people behind were earth-shattering to me. I never want to leave them. I never want them to leave me.
In the midst of great personal reflection, our instructor spoke again:
This has been an activity to get you to peel away at the layers of your life to determine what’s truly important. The relationships you build throughout your life will define and shape you…NEVER lose sight of these relationship. Never, ever allow your job to overwhelm your life…never allow it to become your life. Keep people first. Now…answer me one more question: when was the last time you spend 2 hours alone with the person you chose?
Most of my colleagues would later inform me that it had been weeks since they had spent that much time with “their person.” Luckily enough for me, I had seen “my person” for 2+ hours the night before. I can’t imagine a day going by without making some sort of contact with this person, let alone physical contact. I’ve always valued the relationships in my life, but not so much as I was that day at seminar.
My instructor’s lesson was simple: don’t ever let your job consume your life. Keep the “important things” as the “important things”; don’t let them become retitled as the “things you’d like to attend to.” Filter through what you want to get to what you need. And for God’s sake, cherish the people who shower you with love and give it back to them, tenfold. Life is about the memories we make with those we hold dearest and not about how much money we made or how good we were at our job. It has nothing to do with reputation and everything to do with love.
I end my post today with closing comments from my instructor on this exercise. You’ll truly understand what an inspirational person this man is by the time you finish. I know I did.
I want to tell you a story about my son…who passed away just a few years ago. When he was growing up, he would always nag me to play ping pong with him. And my usual response was “Not now, son…I don’t have time.” Work took over my life. I ended up getting to be so busy that those ping pong opportunities became few and far between. So, I made a change. I cut down on what I was asked to do, and only made commitments to what I needed to do. And, I played ping pong…boy, did I play ping pong.
At my son’s graduation from high school, I sat in the stands, tears in my eyes, and watched proudly as he made his way on stage. I turned to my wife and said “God, I wish I had played more ping pong.” She said “You played a lot of ping pong.”
My son died a few years ago…and I can say today…I’m grateful I chose to play ping pong…