You have thirty days to live and you’re mapping out exactly how to spend these last few weeks. What would you prioritize? Where would you find meaning? Is the life you imagine in your last thirty days drastically different from the one you live now?
Only when faced with our own mortality do we truly consider what exactly it is that we want out of life. When we don’t take the time to contemplate our truest intentions, we let days, weeks, and years slip by on autopilot, waiting for the happy days ahead that always rest mockingly just over the horizon. Of course, many have the courage to escape this fate, but when a palliative nurse named Bronnie Ware recorded the top five regrets of the dying, she found that the most common regret was not having the courage to live an authentic life, true to ones values and desires rather than guided by others’ expectations.
In his book, Happiness, Matthieu Ricard recounts a conversation he had with a young man working in the Hong Kong stock exchange. His life was devoted to work, and he often slept in the office, so that he could access his computer just before the New York stock exchange closed. Once or twice a year he would travel to the beach, and while admiring the beauty and serenity of the ocean, would think, “What a strange life I lead. And yet I’ll start all over again come Monday morning.”
Is it a lack of priorities or of courage that keep some of us from making change in our lives? We stand at the brink of endless possibilities in our one precious life, so why do so many of us yearn for the serenity of the ocean, but remain in our office buildings? Like a bird that is freed from its cage only to return back to captivity, overwhelmed with the vastness of the world, we find comfort in familiarity and fear the unknown consequences of pursing the less traveled path of passion and authenticity. So we leave the expansive tranquility of the beach and return to the office.
The man-made box of modern life is only as confining as our perception of it. We underestimate our agency to create the life we want to lead, and rather than taking the time to uncover our most fundamental values and desires, and devise an existence that compliments those intentions, we fall victim to what Ware calls, “the treadmill of a work existence.” We work with the ultimate intention of finding happiness, but all too often, the means contradict the end. Balance and flourishing, however, are attainable by keeping our fundamental intentions in mind and redefining our vision of success.