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.
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.
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.