this is the start of your second life
“We all have two lives. The second one starts when we realize that we only have one.” ― Tom Hiddleston
I learned that someone I deeply respect might have less than a year to live.
This is not a proven fact, he was careful to say, and he doesn’t necessarily believe it. He’s been in this position before, in his twenties, when a difficult medical procedure saved his life. That could happen again — if certain circumstances fall into place. That is not impossible.
But when he thinks about the future now, he said, his voice rueful and matter-of-fact, he no longer sees himself in it.
What he then said to me (and others), I want to remember for the rest of my life. I want to tattoo in blazing neon on the inside of my eyelids to read every time I close my eyes:
The human heart pumps on average about 72 times a minute….Stop what you’re doing, stand perfectly still, and listen to the beat of your heart…Know that 72 times every minute, it is telling you this: You are still alive…You are still alive…You are still alive…
We have a way of forgetting this.
We have a way of losing perspective, not to mention ourselves, in the wrong things, the wrong activities, the wrong priorities.
In order to survive and thrive, nature hardwired us to
a) focus on the negative
b) numb out.
Negative thinking is actually very helpful, as much as this culture loves to pooh-pooh it. Being “productively paranoid” and obsessing on the holes in our lives compel us to pay attention, prepare for worst-case scenarios and seek out the people and resources we need (or think we need) to thrive.
Numbing out to whatever is constant and familiar also serves an evolutionary purpose. We can only be alert to so many things. We are primed to pay attention not to the pattern of our days so much as whatever breaks or disrupts it.
What is familiar, reasons a deepset, ancient part of our brain, must be safe, since it hasn’t killed us so far. (That this sets the bar rather low is entirely beside the point.)
In contrast, whatever is new, is different, could be a threat we must defend against or an opportunity we should pursue. The familiar fades into the background, and novelty, or the craving for novelty, snags and preoccupies.
This might be the part where you expect me to talk about living your passion or finding your purpose, or to quote Mary Oliver’s line about your one wild and precious life, but that’s not quite what I’m getting at.
The fact that I am here, now, sitting cross-legged on this couch in this hotel room, writing this to you, dear Reader, as the seaside town beyond my balcony shades to dark. The fact that you are here, now, reading this. The miracle of being alive, as well as the future remaining to each of us – which might be, which just might be, less than we think.
(Then again, maybe I’ll live to be over 100. Maybe you will. I intend to.)
We numb out – we are programmed to numb out – to the familiar everyday knowledge that just to be alive, to feel like we can take the future for granted, is this amazing fucking thing.
We like to think of life as a gift, but it is not.
One day you will have to give it back.
One day you will have to account to your soul for how you spent it and what you regret.
We forget this, until something – like an announcement from a dying friend – intrudes into our awareness, shocks us into remembering, and appreciating.
Then we forget it again.
So I have decided to start going for walks in cemeteries.
I want to be aware of death, so that I may realize my life.
So I have decided to start a gratitude practice.
I want to train my negative mind to see the beauty through the familiar.
It’s probably not a coincidence that both these activities – contemplating death, and cultivating appreciation – have been scientifically proven to create wellbeing. Make them habits and they will lift your level of happiness.
Thinking about death makes you appreciate your life.
Imagining yourself on your deathbed — looking back on the past still in your future — has a way of streamlining your priorities, signaling what’s important.
Forcing your mind to notice everyday pleasures counters its natural, obsessive pull toward problems that – if your plane suddenly aimed toward the ground – might not seem so problematic after all.
So stop what you’re doing. Stand perfectly still. Listen to the message in the beat of your heart:
You are still alive.
You are still alive.
When I look into the future I can see myself in it. It is my sacred task, now, to bring a piece of my friend with me. This piece of him lives in my heart. It might be small, but it has a strong voice, echoing through the chambers to a dark organic rhythm:
This is the start
of your second life.