this is the start of your second life



for G

“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.

Apr 8, 2014

11 comments · Add Yours

This is a lovely piece of writing. Thank you for sharing it. Practicing gratitude helped me through a particularly difficult time in my life. Honestly, things are still quite difficult for me but remembering what I’m grateful for gets me through the day.


I found myself in a similar setting for the past few weeks. One of my dad’s chronic health problems had flared up, and I found myself dealing with him and his issues in a pretty sad, ugly way. My dad’s problems can are all be chalked up to his own poor choices that he’s been making repeatedly for the last 50 or so years. (Playing it safe) His body is practically a prison for him now, due to a host of reasons.

I watch him spiral out of control, exasperating his issues, continuing his same behavior. I look at him and see my own features. We share the same shape of face, hair color, taste in music. We’d been abused at the hands of the same woman, and I know that could easily be me sitting there trapped in my own skin; unable to even tie my shoes. Let alone do yoga or take a rambling walk. Its got me (once again) marveling at small, stupid things. Taking a shower, being able to bounce up stairs, taking those big deep ujjayi breaths.

Its got me thinking to about what I want out of life. And I’m still not completely sure. But I do know that I *dont* want to chose an easy death instead of a potentially harder, but more satisfying life.


I was diagnosed with systemic sclerosis at the age of 32. My children were 2, 6, 8 and 10 at that time. Having lost my mother to death when I was five years old made the doctor’s prognosis of 3 to 5 years to live very probable. Like you Justine, I took this information as a sign that changes needed to be made. And changes I made, so now at the ripe age of fifty with all my children full grown; I look at that diagnosis as a gift! Nothing gives you more clarity than staring down your own mortality!


I remember when my son was diagnosed with Autism I became very negative and constantly questioned “Why”? My husband told me that we would now appreciate every word that he uttered, every milestone that he would eventually meet, and every achievement in a way that most parents take for granted. Today I sit here thinking how lucky I am for his diagnosis and remember every single “first step” and achievement thereafter with a grateful smile. My husband said that he loved our son more because of his autism. My son became my teacher in a lesson of love and acceptance of what life brings us. Thank you Justine for this beautiful post. I genuinely appreciate it.


Heartbreaking and riveting. And your most powerful writing yet .. out of your years of writing powerful words.


An incredible piece of work and a priceless reminder. Thank you, Justine.


Beautifully expressed. Thanks for sharing creative practices to create perspective and meaning in our daily lives. Ciao.


The topic of death caught my attention young. I had a heart condition that put me in the hospital at age 4 with other heart ailing kids. One little boy died in the middle of the night, his bed was next to mine. Shift to my college days when Dr Kubler Ross was making noise about the five stages of dying-so many back then thought she was ‘possessed.’ The U of Chicago would not put her course in the medical school curriculum. They told her she had to teach this concept from the Divinity School. ‘Death has no place in medicine’ must have been their thinking. Just last week I interviewed psychologist and ‘dying’ expert, Dr. Lani Leary. She said “People tend to die the way they live.” Boy, is that a mouthful.
So glad to read your post, Justine. I’m launching a small business aimed at this time in life that we all eventually face. As a former nurse who has seen a lot of people pass over, I think we can do better by them…and us. There needs to be more ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ stories to read simply because they bring us closer to this developmental stage of living. I also believe these kind of stories help us to become less afraid.


@Melissa very well said and you speak from your Soul. fear IS the main problem. @marla miller both of you women are unique. you are sensing there is more…and there is. we never die because our Souls are infinite. Walter and Lao Russell are the only couple I know that have truly embraced what life is all about. google their names and discover an amazing story of Love and life. i am seeking my ‘Lao’… ;))


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