A year to live

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while and now something BBC journalist Helen Fawkes has written has prompted me to get on with it.

Helen has been diagnosed with incurable ovarian cancer, and told she will die some time within the next five years, possibly within the next few months.  And one of her responses to this has been to create a list of things she wants to do before then. Not a (kick the) bucket list, as many people call them. But a list for living, containing 50 things like having a go in a racing car, getting a dog, going to Paris on Eurostar for lunch and presenting a programme on BBC Radio 4. She’s done some of her list and is very close to this last as she’ll be on the BBC World Service this coming Monday talking about her list.DSC05973

Unlike Helen, I’ve had no terminal diagnosis and am feeling very well, thanks all the same. Nevertheless I’ve decided to live this next year as if it’s my last. I’ll explain why.

For all the time we’ve been working as ‘a sense of place’ I’ve run something called ‘Finding the work you love.’ Two days of conversations for one individual with me, to find out what they’d really like to be doing for a living, and plan out how they’ll get there. One of the conversations is called ‘A year to live’ and this is what happens. I say:

“We’re going on a walk now, a quiet walk. And before we go I’m going to give you an imaginary situation. And it’s this. You have a year to live. You won’t suffer any more than the usual coughs and colds but in a year’s time it’s like your light will go out. So what will you do with your year? You’ll have to do at least enough work to get by but I don’t want you to over-do the working. Because you’ll need to have time to do the other things you might want to. Like travel, see family, see friends, whatever you decide.”

Then we walk while they think. And after we’ve been walking for a while, we turn into a graveyard, sit down and talk.

And this usually turns out to be one of the most powerful conversations from the whole of the two days. Serious changes in people’s work and lives get made once they are freed from a limitless future. Once they can sit down, in peace and think about what really matters to them.

Faced with a year to live, even as a theory, people easily clear the inessentials from their lives. The wrong people, habits and the wrong work are enthusiastically ditched to make time for the people they love, the work they love and themselves. Because there’s only a year to go.

And at the end of the conversation, plans made and major decisions taken, people are often serenely peaceful. At which point I  say something like:

“Well how would it be if from now on you always lived your life like you had a year to live?”

Which is one of the points of the conversation. The day will come when each of us will only have a year to live. But unless we get the kind of diagnosis Helen Fawkes has had, we’ll never know. So maybe it would be a good idea to live all the time like the time you have really matters? Like you’re living your final year?

I got the idea for doing this conversation from a book called ‘A year to live’ by Stephen Levine. He had done a lot of work with AIDS patients and noticed the serenity many of them found in knowing how long they had left. So he wrote his book about how we might all apply this thought to our lives. His book contains a lot of devotional practices and teachings, none of which made their way into the ‘Work’ course I made up. But the ‘year to live’ thought intrigued me and continues to do so.

Which brings me back to me. In all the years of having this ‘year’ conversation with so many people I never had it with myself. Even Sarah’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment a few years back made me focus only on her potential mortality and not my own.

Until, the last time I ran ‘Work’ with someone, some reflecting on my own life finally happened.

At first I thought that if I had a year to live I’d want to mainly run the ‘Work’ course. Because I’d found it so fulfilling and people had found it so practical and useful. But further walking around and reflecting showed that this first thought wasn’t the thought itself. The thought itself is:

“I want to live the next year as if it’s the last year of my life and see what that does.”

I had finally listened to what I’ve been talking to other people about since, well, 1995.

So I took myself round to the graveyard and listened to myself think. And like everyone else I decided to clear some things, do less of some things, and more of some others.DSC09940

I decided I will walk even more than I do and would restart the Friday Walks, even if on my own. I now have.

I decided on some changes in the balance of the work I do and will be changing the website soon to show what these changes are.

And one of them is that ‘Finding the work you love’ will not run any more. This post is not a covert advert for that. People will continue to have their careers but in my ‘Year to live’ my concerns and my efforts will be elsewhere. Thinking and talking with people about life rather than just work.

And I decided I will blog the ‘year’. The underlying thought of ‘Would this matter, would you do this if you had a year to live?’ will inform every post. Which doesn’t mean it will be a year about death, though death will get talked about. Or that I’ll keep going on about time running out. Rather, it will be a year about living, running, walking, being with Sarah, seeing friends, laughing and drinking, reading and learning, listening to beautiful music (on perfect LPs), going to interesting places, and caring for my beloved Liverpool, my sacred Shining Shore, where my heart lies.

I will live this year as if it’s my last. Let’s see what that’s like.

Find the rest of these posts here.

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place: http://asenseofplace.com.

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  1. Love your blogs Ronnie ..and this one really intrigues me! Gives me lots of food for thought.
    Also I love the list blog! Am a big “lister” myself.

    Fab things on your list and on the seven streets one. And I can make yet another…
    And isn’t that the beauty of our wonderful city? Just soo much to choose from! X

    1. Thanks Liz, Living in such a lovely place is part of why I don’t have a feeling of wanting to do lots of travelling in this year to live. Anglesey, Wastwater, some Hebrides sure. But they’re all a part of my wider place, this living by the Irish Sea, with Liverpool as my still centre.

  2. Ronnie, I’ve been following your blog with pleasure for a while now. But this is probably the most meaningful posting I’ve seen anywhere in a long time.

    A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was given such a diagnosis. He had a lot going on in his life, and he was able to do things that he needed to before the end. he also had the luxury of putting all his affairs in order – something which I understood having had close family members pass away very suddenly and unexpectedly. Last year, another friend was in a similar situation, and again he was able to put his affairs in order. It’s difficult for anyone to understand quite what that means unless they’ve experienced sudden loss.

    For myself, I don’t want to tempt fate. However, three years ago I found that I was so dissatisfied with the way that my working life was going, due both to factors in the workplace and also things I had no control over, such as the political situation in the land and the way our senior managers were reacting to it (i.e. inappropriately and – as it turned out – wrongly), that I decided I needed to walk away from a job I’d done for thirty years and try doing what I realised I wanted to. So I took voluntary early retirement (some ten years early, in fact) and set myself up as a freelance photographer.

    This was a decision with very mixed consequences. The bad thing was that I misjudged the extent to which the advent of digital photography and the recession had impacted the demand for quality photography. I knew it was bad – lots of wannabes with £450 DSLRs touting themselves as “professionals” and being prepared to work for peanuts or even nothing driving down the value of quality work, and the ready availability of images on the Net for pennies devaluing the worth of the stock image market – but I hadn’t realised that it was even worse than I’d expected. After setting up my business, the money lasted about fifteen months before things got a bit desperate. I switched to doing contract IT work, and that’s been a bit up and down. The downs have been close to disastrous.

    But the good thing was that I never regretted doing what I did. I’ve had some great experiences as a result of leaving the Day Job behind; I now have a book published, and I’ve won a couple of photo competitions. And I do know (because this was one of the things I factored into my original decision) that if I’d stayed with the Day Job, I would have been in exactly the same financial position, but about a year earlier – and I wouldn’t have a book or some fantastic photographs to show for it. Meanwhile, the situation in the Day Job has nosedived, and senior management in the organisation I left have disappeared up their own cronyist fundament.

    So: I take from your post something that I’ve found for myself – follow your dream. I know that’s a dreadful cliché, but it’s true.

  3. Hi Robert, thanks for your story and glad you find what I’ve written so meaningful. And do you know, I’m not sure I do mean ‘Follow your dream’ anymore? I’ll write more about this when I’ve thought more about it but maybe following your dream is another form of the over-driven ambition to succeed we so suffer from?

    As you can probably tell, one thing I’ve learned from many of the people I’ve worked with is the relief of letting go. Letting go of the wrong work and the wrong people definitely. But also a quietening down of the rage to succeed. Doing things you love, sure – but maybe they’re not all big things. And maybe some of them are around you anyway? Friends you’ve never spent quite enough time with, cameras just waiting to be picked up for the love of photography?

    1. Great post Ronnie and struck by your comment to Robert re work/dreams/ambition and letting go:
      ‘A quietening down of the rage to succeed’
      instantly calming!
      I carry a year to live with me every day.
      Thank you x

    2. Ronnie, if I had made “following my dream” my objective, then I’d be pretty disappointed with the way things have turned out. Perhaps I was over-simplifying. And there’s always the risk that “following your dream” might just mean turning up at the bus stop one morning naked.

      I suspect that letting go of that rage to succeed – nice phrase – can actually give you the space to find what it is you really want; and that can be small things, or slightly bigger things. And letting go of the things that don’t matter is always a positive move.

  4. There is a road, no simple highway,
    Between the dawn and the dark of night,
    And if you go no one may follow,
    That path is for your steps alone.

    All weekend this thought-provoking post has been on my mind. When we’re young, life seems to stretch out before us, limitless – plenty of time to do the things we want. Now, 65, and with the road ahead undoubtedly shorter, I find, strangely, that I still feel much the same, life still seems limitless most days, in spite of logic. I suppose that is my first response – perhaps we can’t live as if this year is our last, our human condition doesn’t allow it. Indeed, some people might even be paralysed at the thought.

    My next thought, again personal, is that the suggestion that lies behind the precept – don’t waste your life, seize the day, get out of that deadly job, travel, see the places you’ve always dreamed of seeing, etc – is maybe predicated on being one of the lucky ones who have the skills, energy, money or qualifications to shift from work that numbs the soul to something more stimulating. But not everyone is so fortunate. I realise, Ronnie, that you have clarified your position in the comments, saying that what can be equally valuable is ‘doing things you love… maybe they’re not all big things,’ and I think that’s absolutely right.

    But, I have to admit, at times I lean towards a belief that there is some sort of fate that determines our path (as Robert Hunter implies in the lyrics to the Grateful Dead’s ‘Ripple’ that I quoted at the start). Why is it that some people seem to be so much more fortunate in life, dealt such a good hand of health and the rest?

    On the other hand, though (you can see how undecided I am), I do definitely see that taking each day as it comes can lead to drift and stagnation.

    I really don’t know how I would feel, or respond, if told I had only a year to live. I think I’d rather just trust in fate: when it comes, it comes.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Gerry. In one way you’re right of course, when death comes it comes. But I’ve had this ‘year to live’ conversation with so many people who were calmed and clarified by it that I don’t know why it took me so long to have the conversation with myself.

      And in a way it’s about being ready. And not wasting the time we have. But also about letting go. I’m preparing a follow up post with a friend now about this letting go, this gentling of life. Appreciating rather than longing and striving. This anyway is what I’m trying to get at for me. So I hope what we’re writing will help, help us all.

      But it is thought-provoking this ‘year to live’ idea. I’ve set off on it, as I say, to see what it does. Let’s see.

  5. I hope you enjoy your year Ronnie. I have a little girl who was born weighing 1lb 15ozs (our little bag of sugar) who desperately hung onto life. Her first moments in life were spent on a ventilator and her first 10 weeks in intensive care. Lots of other little ones were in a similar boat some were fortunate and made it….. some were not. Our little girl is now aged 5 and although she will spend her whole life in a wheelchair her humility and courage is an absolute inspiration. I have learned a lot as her Dad from this whole experience and especially the fragility of life. It has certainly made me think about living and what matters most in life. Enjoy it all Ronnie and remember Its better to burn out than to fade away…….or is it?

    1. Thanks for this Dave and for what you’ve experienced and say about ‘living and what matters most in life.’ We come to our valuing and appreciating of life in so many ways. For me this seems to be partly about a calming down, a letting go of striving. But I’m still working it out. Your ‘little bag of sugar’ is clearly the light of your lives, love and appreciation to you all x

  6. I remembered this, Ronnie, and thought you might enjoy it – from a novel I read recently, ‘Samarkand’ by Amin Maalouf:

    “It was said that a half-mad king had condemned Nasruddin to death for having stolen an ass. Just as he was about to be led off for execution he exclaimed: ‘That beast is in reality my brother. A magician made him look like that, but if he were entrusted to me for a year I would teach him to speak like us again!’ Intrigued, the monarch made the accused repeat his promise before decreeing: ‘Very well! But if within one year from today the ass does not speak, you will be executed!’ As he went out, Nasruddin was accosted by his wife: ‘How can you make a promise like that? You know very well that this ass will not speak.’ ‘Of course I know,’ replied Nasruddin, ‘but during the year the king might die, the ass might or even I might.”

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