Be the person you'd like to be
Living with the presence of death is often on my mind these days. A friend was recently diagnosed with aggressive leukaemia and another in her 50s has an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
A former colleague died one afternoon—the postmortem revealed a brain tumour.
Another friend has breast cancer and my mother is in remission from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There’s the acquaintance killed in a car accident, the friend of a friend murdered in a hijacking and another is dying from Aids complications.
This is normal—I’m sure you could make a similar list. The difference between us might be the time we each afford to consider death as a life partner.
One of the reasons I give it airtime is because of my profession. About half the clients I coach want to work on how they might further excel in their current set-up; the others want to consider the next step in the rest of their lives.
How long is the rest of anyone’s life? We can’t know. Death is our only certainty but its timing is tantalisingly uncertain.In my view three scenarios have an impact on how we choose to live.
One: You could die any day—unexpectedly.
Two: Any moment now you could be diagnosed with a terminal illness and informed of the average life expectancy for that condition.
Three: Neither of the above may happen—you’ve drawn the longevity card.
Life’s challenge seems to be how to live for now, bearing in mind that there is a possibility that your future may be cut short.
When clients want to work out the next step in their lives, there’s lots of scope for exploration. It’s gratifying to take stock of feedback on what people think you are really good at. But it is possible to be good at things that you don’t actually enjoy.
Martha Beck’s body compass provides important insights on what you do well and gives you good energy.
Beck-trained coaches often use a questionnaire, Social Self versus Essential Self. This helps you to identify what you do because it’s the socially conditioned correct thing to do, but which also drains you. Your essential self identifies those things you do that give you joy and energy.
Nancy Kline, Byron Katie and Beck offer coaching approaches that help you to work through identified limiting factors — what do you assume is holding you back?
Beck has two stunning brain-teaser questionnaires, If Only and Everybody Thinks. It’s amazing how we hold back because of other people’s expectations of us.
Sometimes I ask people to write about their dream day in 10 years’ time. Other times, I ask them to draft two obituaries, one as if they were to die now and the other for a defined date in the future. These explorations bring focus and often lead to engaging with their dreams seriously enough to turn them into reality.
One client of mine stands on the cusp of making a decision—another employment opportunity versus the dream of his own business. The latter requires turning assets into liquid cash for the start-up capital. There’s reluctance to touch the retirement nest egg.
Death is always immanent; life change is often possible. Who’s to say my client will ever enjoy retirement? Turning the dream into short-term reality is excitingly palpable. But risk appetites vary enormously. Only he can make the decision.
Here are four questions that help to guide me:
- If I were to die tomorrow, am I satisfied with my life as I’m living it? What, if anything, would I change?
- If I were to be given two years to live, how would I spend the time? Is there anything that I would really love to do that I should consider bringing forward—is that valid even if I’m not terminally ill?
- If I were to die only several decades from now, is my current way of living and working leading my life satisfactorily towards the obituary that I’d like to be read out at my funeral?
- And, finally, this group of questions is a constant: am I happy enough with how things are in the different relationships that are important to me in my life? Is there any relationship that is “unresolved”, that if that party were to die, I would regret not having made peace?
So the issue “what’s the next step in my life?” can be explored with a light tread, or you could choose a rigorous, multifaceted exploration.
One of my favourite poems is Mary Olver’s The Journey:
“One day you finally knew/ what you had to do, and began/ though the voices around you/ kept shouting their bad advice.”
The last stanza begins, “It was already late ... and there was a new voice/ which you slowly/ recognised as your own/ that kept you company/ as you strode deeper and deeper/ into the world/ determined to do/ the only thing you could do/ determined to save/ the only life that you could save.”
Your own—not so?
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