As the calendar year winds down, many of us begin to look at time with a heightened sense of opportunity. We become primed to make resolutions and to consider change.
My professional world, admittedly skewed by a disproportionate number of patients fighting cancer, seems to contain a built-in awareness of time. In fact, there’s more than awareness. In my work-world, time is an urgent matter. According to many of my patients, time is vivid and tangible. That, I’m convinced, is why the gifts that I receive most often from my patients are clocks --grandfather clocks, engraved pocket watches, even a "melting clock" modeled after the famous Dali image. The outward expression of all these gifts is quite diverse. However, the inner, "existential clock" of most cancer patients is rather similar in that it ticks neither slowly nor silently.
In my off-duty world, people ask whether I think that it’s possible to deepen one’s appreciation of time. In workshops and retreats, we use a tool called the "timeline activity.” The activity takes only a few minutes -- I know, I know, your time is valuable -- but it’s an exercise that you may find worth the time. If you can locate a pen and paper, we can do this right now. One last thing, find a private space to do this activity; a place where inhibitions are unwelcome and honesty prevails.
First, position the paper in the landscape orientation and draw a horizontal line. Think of the line as representing the length of your life. Label the left end "birth" and the right end, "death". That last label, in itself, may invite pause but continue by placing an “X” at the point on the line where you think you might be today. As you proceed, be aware of your feelings. Is it difficult to decide where to place the “X”? Do you experience anxiety when you see a graphic representation of the time that you may have left, or are you at peace with the picture that you’ve drawn?
Next, please, think of six significant events that have occurred in your life. There are no right or wrong answers. Some people include, for example, graduation, marriage, a new job, a birth, or a death. In chronological order between “birth” and the “X,” make a mark to represent each event that you’ve chosen. Think about your reason for having selected each event. What emotions does the event inspire? Did you omit certain events because depicting them would cause unpleasant feelings? Are there events missing that you wish were there?
Now, please, think about the section of line between the "X" and "death". What do you want to do with the time that remains? Write down six things that are on your "bucket list" – preferably six things that reflect your own values rather than the expectations of other people. For example, do you dream of exotic travel? Is there a milestone anniversary that you hope to celebrate? Perhaps an intense conversation that you keep pushing off or a new person that you’d like to meet in order to befriend? One businessman confided that he hoped to have an affair with his secretary. (Not recommended!) Be truthful and reflect on how you feel about each choice, then, zoom out to regard the entire timeline. Once again, connect those six events to the latter portion of your timeline.
Take a moment to breathe.
It may not be easy to contemplate major choices when everyday life presses. For instance, our grandson has been having a sleep over with us. As I wrote the previous paragraph, he woke up in fear. He called my name. He has no way of knowing about his powerful grip on me. I don''t have the time to comfort him now but, simultaneously, I don''t have the ability to do anything else. The blog and my own fatigue will wait. A nightmare which perched itself in the seat-of-thought of a 3-year-old needs to be dealt with.
Back to our exercise. Next, a less-than-pleasant challenge that we call time-compression. Move the label “death” fifty percent closer to the "X". That’s right, lop off fifty percent of your proposed remaining time. But keep this in mind: who among us can be certain of not losing even eighty or ninety percent of the time that we count on? That anguished possibility is what so many cancer patients face when they realize that they don’t know what to expect, and they are no longer in control.
Suddenly, in our imagined scenarios, we may be able to make only three of our six dreams come true. How will you reorder your priorities? Which of your wishes will prevail? Which must be kicked off the island? Which of your dreams matter most to you? And what will you do, today, to make them happen?
In December of this year, many in the world worried about the so-called Mayan Apocalypse. Bumper stickers and T-shirts warned us that "the end is near" and asked "what will you do with the time you have left". Although these mythological predictions were not borne out, each of us might still reflect on what we will do with the time we have left.
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