I am not a pilot, brain-surgeon or rocket scientist. Nor am I planning the invasion of a small country, yet you could be forgiven for thinking so, judging by my ruthless obsession with increasing efficiency.
I am doing more things, more quickly than I even thought possible.
I am communicating with more people, faster and better than before.
I have de-cluttered and re-prioritized, systematized and categorized. I have mind maps and action plans, to do lists and tickler files, 43 folders and a 5 year plan.
Yet even as I am dizzied by my own super-human levels of productivity, I’ve started to feel that I am surviving more than thriving.
On the treadmill on Sunday as I dutifully clocked up my miles, I couldn’t help noticing that a large part of my life now closely resembles that of a plucky little hamster, sprinting gamely on its wheel.
Last week, I spent my Thursday afternoon at the bedside of a patient who was dying. I met this man in the last months of his life, when he was suffering from end stage Alzheimer’s disease.
He wasn’t the man he once was. Although he could no longer express himself, he communicated so much to me about who he was that truly inspired me.
When I would visit him in the nursing home at meal-times he didn’t recognize or remember me, yet without fail, as I sat down beside him he would pat my hand and say,
“Have you eaten?” and offer me the food from his own plate. When I would get up to leave, he would look with concern out the window, checking on the weather and to see if it was dark, telling me to be careful as I bid him goodbye.
On the last day we were alone together for several hours.
The stillness in the room descended like a heavy blanket of snow, pierced only by the sound of the oxygen machine and his breathing.
Time slowed down at last and I felt a shift in my perspective and perceptions about what had been so important and urgent before I sat down beside him.
I was holding his hand as he took his last breath and his heart beat its last.
Accompanying someone to the end of their life is an experience that never fails to humble you but something about this experience has really changed me.
On Sunday, I was invited to a gathering of his family and friends. The house was full of people, eating and laughing, celebrating a life well-lived.
Looking around, his daughter told me he would have loved this day. I sat down to look at a photo-album, eager to see glimpses of the man he had been.
As I turned the pages, looking at the photos of him playing with a grand-child or laughing at the helm of his boat in the Summer ocean, I saw confirmation of what I had felt intuitively; that this was a man who loved to spend time with his friends and family.
In this portrait of a life, I saw what was dear to him.
A man brimming with generosity, fun, kindness and love. A man who brightened the lives of all those around him.
A man who cared for, comforted and cherished those he loved.
I remembered that I knew what he had done for a living and yet what struck me most was this.
His glorious legacy was not what he had done but who he had been
I share this with you today to remind you to stop and smell the roses.
Tell those you love how you feel about them.
Be glad that you can.
Pause for a moment and imagine looking back on your life:
How will you view what seems so urgent and important today?
Guilt is very subjective matter; in a given situation, two people might make exactly the same decisions and carry out the very same actions, yet one of them wouldn’t give matters a second thought, whilst the other will be racked with guilt about identical choices and circumstances. It all comes down to how you measure up to your own expectations of yourself. The higher and the more unrealistic those expectations are, the greater the risk that you will fail to meet them and set yourself up for a massive burden of guilt.
Guilt is profoundly destructive and rather futile emotion, it has the power to become a black hole inside the soul, sucking all the joy and life out of a person. I would go so far as to say that it is a morbid form of self-absorption that offers no benefit to anyone. Feeling guilty doesn’t feed a hungry mouth or hold a lonely hand.
Here is a handy 4 part system I teach to my coaching clients: To work this process you can either use a journal or talk each stage through with a coach, therapist or friend.
1) Reality Check
The first step is to get some perspective by recalling the events in an objective a manner as possible – without the benefit of hindsight. Describe the circumstances and you may also find it helpful to think about what information, knowledge and resources – both practical and personal, were available to you at the time.
Now describe how you would have handled the situation ideally. What are the specific expectations of yourself that you failed to meet?
Next, you are going to evaluate those expectations – weed out any that weren’t fair, realistic or attainable. (To help with this step, imagine someone you love very much and see if you would hold the same expectations of them in this situation.) Looking at the list of unmet expectations you have left, allow yourself to fully feel regret – but don’t get stuck there. An optional extra step at this stage would be to come up with some amends you might want to make if that is possible. If you can’t “make it up” to the person in question, you can also consider an act of kindness or charity that you would do in their honor for someone or something else.
Here is where we come to the most important step. Reviewing everything you have come up with so far, make a list of intentions for the future. First on the list might be to set the intention of forgiving yourself. Next, write down a list of new and/or revised expectations you have for yourself and set some intentions for a different behavior in the future.
In conclusion, my loving suggestion is that rather than being paralyzed by guilt, you take action to transform it into something else which can actually benefit yourself and others. Regret what needs to be regretted and forgive what you can, this is the alchemy of healing, by which you can extract the gold from guilt, which is to learn from our experiences.
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More and more, I find that I am receiving such inspiration about living from the people in my life who are dying. Many of the hospice patients I care for have end-stage Alzheimers and can no longer communicate directly, yet somehow, I am still blessed to receive the gift of their wisdom. Often, it is through talking to their loved ones. This week for example, I was met the husband of one of my patients on a visit to her at the nursing home. He was expressing how difficult it is, how much he misses his wife of over 50 years. The tragedy is how sad he is when he doesn’t see her and yet how hard it is to see her in her current condition, no longer able to recognize him.
It is hard for me to understand what it is like to slowly lose the partner with whom you have shared half a century of living. He tells me how happy they were, about how much fun they always had together throughout the years. He tells me how she would look for a chance to celebrate at every opportunity, even something small and is strikes me as such a powerfully inspiring message. This tiny bird like woman, with her beautifully braided hair, hands neatly folded into one another and eyes that see other worlds, is speaking to me today, showing me how to live in a better way.
You know what her saying was? Her husband tells me. She always used to say “Let’s go out and have a helluva good time!” Amen, sister.