Oldest cliché in the book: There’s nothing like a serious illness or loss to shake you out of your stupor and rearrange your priorities. Or as Joni Mitchell sang, "You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone."
I remember a famous cancer doctor telling me years ago that every one of his patients said if only they’d known the relationship between what they ate and disease, they would have changed their diet overnight. So much of the world’s arts and letters and culture high and low is filled with coulda-shoulda-woulda’s.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get a glimpse of our future so we could be motivated to pay attention to the important things and make all those changes now?
Obviously we can’t (not with assurance, anyway), but there are certain things that most of us would probably benefit from. Like reducing our stress. Most medical professionals come together on this point: Stress is a factor in all major diseases.
We’re all highly aware that the farthest distance between two points is the leap from knowing something to doing it. But for me, a few recent illnesses (not mine) have acted like the world’s loudest and most unignorable wake-up call.
I’ve had a lot of quiet time to contemplate the things that just don’t matter when faced with losing someone you deeply love. And I want to turn these experiences into a positive — a big positive — where I actually do shift some priorities, stop just talking the talk, and make that giant leap to walking the walk.
Here are 7 things I’ve determined cause undue stress in my life, and I’ve resolved to care way less about them.
- Appearances: yours, mine and ours So what if I look like I just rolled out of bed? I probably did. If that’s how someone is going to judge me, I don’t think we’re going to get along anyway. The other side of that coin is being less judgmental of others’ appearances. Aren’t I usually wrong about 100 percent of the time? I resolve to look past everyone’s superficial “flaws” and discover their true essence — starting in the mirror.
- The state of my home Under normal conditions, I spend a fair bit of time “tidying up.” During stressful times, I turn into a lean, green cleaning machine. Every speck of dust, every invisible-to-the-naked-eye smudge, every out-of-alignment picture or tchotchke must be corrected — instantly. When I think of how much reading, writing, meditating, cooking and connecting with the people who matter that I could be doing, it’s obvious what a waste of time and energy hyperkinetic cleaning is.
- Returning every email at Usain Bolt speed Our generation remembers life before answering machines, email and instantaneous messages; we accepted that it could take days to hear back from someone. Somehow, we survived. Today, if we don’t return an email within the hour, people send the St. Bernards out for us. When you work with a team, you need to be prompt, of course. But high school friends take note: I love you, but I’m going to be a little slower responding. Note to self: Keep the email program open in the background but silenced, and focus on the task at hand. Presumably it’ll turn out better and, in the long run, save a lot of time (and stress).
- Getting people to understand This is something women will probably relate to more than men, Libras more than Aries. And for me, having had a deaf parent, it became somewhat of an obsession. In India once, a friend patiently waited while I tried to say something 20 different ways to a totally uncomprehending yet cheerfully smiling local. Eventually my friend said: “When will you give up? He doesn’t have a clue what you want.” Being understood is still important to me — but I am learning to accept that everyone lives in his own world, has his own truth and reality. (And everyone’s truth is true to them.) I don’t need to convince them of anything, or explain my behavior. (That said, the occasional apology is still necessary.)
- Freaking out over (unavoidable) delays I can’t hurry love, and I can’t control planes, trains or automobiles. Sometimes I’m just going to be late, and I’m sorry.
- Believing I’ll get around to it eventually It’s also time to accept that I’ll never print all my favorite photos and create lovely labeled scrapbooks. Instead, I will spend undistracted quality time with the people I love. We’re all so proud of our ability to multitask, and we pretend that we’re really fully focused on what someone is saying while we’re checking our email and preparing a text. It’s time to tuck away those insidiously addictive devices — and all the time-sucking activities that come with them — and sit with our friends, family and beloved pets, and just relish every second. They (and we) are going to be gone all too fast, and these are the moments we’ll be offering our last dollar to have another crack at.
- Keeping up with everything In one of his books, Bill Bryson noted that his father would read every page of the paper every day — in case, he joked, the State Department called and needed his input on a matter of national security. Many of us feel the pressure to read everything and keep up with what’s going on in all human realms. But I’m (slowly) coming to realize that I can’t know everything, and besides, as the great shamanic teacher Don Miguel Ruiz wrote in The Mastery of Love, “Knowledge is nothing more than the description of the dream” and “the dream is not real.”
This is the glimpse into the future we all want. As we’ve heard a hundred times, at the end of this journey, few people regret what they’ve done, but most regret what they didn’t do.