Learn how to listen. So few people can really listen and so many people genuinely appreciate when you do.
Learn when it’s time to move on. From jobs, people and relationships. Not everything is fixable. Cut your losses and move on.
None of the best experiences of your life will happen staring a computer screen, a phone screen or a TV. If you want more of the best experiences of your life minimize the time you spend in front of these three.
Take great care of your body. It’s delicate and becomes more so as you get older, but if you treat it well, it will treat you well. Exercise regularly, stretch or do yoga, eat wholesome food.
Take great care of your mind. Foster curiosity, read, learn and grow. Learn to be quiet, meditate and spend time in nature regularly.
Take great care of your heart. When you hold onto harmful emotions like anger, hurt, pain, you really only hurt yourself. When you practice love, compassion and generosity, your heart expands and grows.
You’ll spend too much of your life working, staring at a computer screen and sitting. If you’re going to do all these things, find a work environment or shared purpose that’s fulfilling and creates meaning.
Success comes most readily when you find fulfillment and create value in the world.
Learn how to compliment people and do so regularly. There’s no limit on how many compliments you can offer, there’s no scarcity of compliments available and there’s no end to how much people will appreciate them.
Learn how to accept a compliment and do so whenever one is offered. You’re conditioned to deflect compliments. Recognize how you do this and practice recognizing and accepting when the universe acknowledges what you do.
Learn how to be generous. You can’t attract what you don’t give. Share your knowledge, your time, your thoughts, your wisdom, and your charity.
Learn how to be patient.
Practice gratitude. Everyday.
Great stories come from great experiences. Chase those experiences.
It’s not that time moves by faster as you get older, you just start to have fewer new and captivating experiences. If you can continue those experiences and expand your curiosity, time won’t feel like it flies by as so commonly described.
Claudia Biçen, an artist based in San Francisco and London, spent the past two years interviewing and sketching hospice patients. She was convinced, she said, that dying people could help answer the question of how to live.
The result is a new multimedia exhibit, “Thoughts in Passing,” featuring nine sketched portraits and brief audio narratives in which the patients reflect not only on what it’s like to be dying, but on the lives they led.
The exhibit, completed in recent weeks and which will be shown in San Francisco, has already generated a passionate response. It is likely to be shown in other cities, and can also be seen online.
“Doing this felt like shining a light into this very dark, scary area for me and I’m sure for lots of people,” Biçen said in an interview. “It’s made me feel in my life more. I’m more in each moment.”
Born 30 years ago in London to a mother who brought home orphaned kittens and puppies for foster care, Biçen often held the animals as they died, and she grew accustomed to “the idea of death being close by.”
She earned degrees in psychology, philosophy, and anthropology before romance brought her to San Francisco, where she sketched portraits of family members. The work earned the attention of local galleries, but failed to deliver lasting satisfaction. Deeper wisdom, she thought, might be found in subjects facing death.
Biçen asked Bay Area hospices to find patients to sit for portraits and reflect on life and death, and in 2014 the first candidates emerged. She met several times with each, posing the question: What does it feel like to be dying? They had never been asked the question, they told her, and they had much to say.
She retreated to a studio, where she surrounded herself with photographs of her subjects and audio recordings from their meetings. Just 400 words would make the final audio cut. In the portraits, she would embed words taken from fragments of their conversations.
One subject, Jenny, is an artist herself. Written on her blouse are allusions to time spent locked in a mental institution with the criminally insane. In her audio recording, she tells of a childhood of being kept in an attic by foster parents, the terror of shock therapy, her later discovery of art, and the peace she found in it.
“I wonder about people who never ever know high peace,” Jenny says. “And I felt lucky that I knew. Little old nobody me could get high peace.”
Biçen’s pencil sketch of Jenny will hang in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery starting March 12 — a significant achievement for an artistic project, but one that doesn’t in itself speak to Biçen’s more spiritual achievements.
Experiencing her exhibit, even online, is like stumbling onto an exquisite, futuristic cemetery: portraits that capture the subjects’ essence; spoken words that distill their feelings on life and death; written words that hint at experiences that shaped them.
On screen, the portraits fade to black before their voices go silent, leaving viewers to confront their own reflection on the screen as patients offer their final thoughts.
The exhibit begs the question: How will you be when the time comes?
A nurse in end-of-life care shares the most common regrets of the dying
When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind.
For many years I worked in palliative care. My patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.
People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learned to never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them.
When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again. Here are the most common five:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.
It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.
By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.
We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.
It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.
When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.
Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.
When I learned of the late Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air, which published earlier this year, I felt drawn to its premise. A young doctor with great ambition receives a terminal cancer diagnosis and reports back from the twilight of his life on his quest to seek and find meaning.
Feeling unsure of my own purpose in life, I wanted Kalanithi’s journey to become a beacon to guide my own wandering. Perhaps, I hoped, he might be some kind of oracle.
But that is not the design of Kalanithi’s gripping, emotional book. You, dear reader, are not meant to passively observe Kalanithi’s final moments, glean his wisdom and walk away feeling assured in your path.
Instead you will bear witness to his yearning, suffering and grace. You will watch as lung cancer annihilates his dreams of becoming a renowned neurosurgeon and doctor-philosopher. You will ask yourself if you’ve ever worked as hard as Kalanithi, who commits himself to relentless hours as a medical resident performing high-stake surgeries — even as he tries to dodge death.
As unbearable as that sounds, the pull of this narrative is magnetic. More than a year into parenthood, I hadn’t finished a single book — yet I could barely put down When Breath Becomes Air. Almost nothing else felt as important.
That the book demands your presence is a credit to Kalanithi’s captivating prose. Whether he is describing in vivid detail a midnight hike in the Eldorado National Forest (“pitch-black, stars in full glimmer, the full moon still pinned in the sky”) or his desire to bridge the worlds of literature and neurosurgery (“I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force”), Kalanithi’s sentences are both urgent and poetic.
Others in a similar position might be tempted to sanitize their life. Here’s a man who is candid about his marital troubles. He confesses that he finds himself drifting into becoming a doctor who just goes through the motions:
All my occasions of failed empathy came rushing back to me: the times I had pushed discharge over patient worries, ignored patients’ pain when other demands pressed. The people whose suffering I saw, noted, and neatly packaged into various diagnoses, the significance of which I failed to recognize — they all returned, vengeful, angry and inexorable.
Kalanithi even admits that he suspected cancer months prior to the official diagnosis. His account would have been richer with an exploration of why he dismissed those prescient instincts, but the reader can’t fault a man who has so little time for self-examination.
When Breath Becomes Air is an imperfect book, but it draws its power and permanency from those limitations.
Kalanithi died before finishing the memoir in March 2015, at age 37. His final passage is a moving dedication to his infant daughter (and is followed by an explanatory epilogue from his wife). But before he writes those tender words, he leaves the reader with a gift of their own:
Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect stage. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.
Kalanithi makes no attempt at reassurance. The end is not tidy or filled with comforting platitudes. He makes no effort to find a reason in his death. I had read every page with anticipation, waiting for Kalanithi to share adages born of introspection and tragedy, I had missed the point all together.
Kalanithi’s wisdom lay in wrestling with the toughest questions humans can ask of themselves, even if they go unanswered. That bravery, standing at the edge of the abyss with fortitude, is what gives us meaning. And it’s what made Kalanithi a courageous doctor and human being.
When Breath Becomes Air is essential reading in a world where we try so hard to exercise control over the unpredictable. While the miracles of science and technology are worthy of our praise, we lose something vital when we forsake ambiguity for certainty.
Kalanithi understood that we learn who we are when we remain still in moments of confusion and crisis, when we pause to ask the terrifying questions. And then we keep moving forward even when it feels impossible.
“I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” Kalanithi wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’”
The Life of Death is a touching hand-drawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life. After being well received on various animation festivals and being featured on the EYE film DVD of Selected Dutch Shorts it is finally online!
If death is the final taboo, it might not be for much longer. There has, in recent years, been increasing effort to promote conversations about death and dying, both in the home and in more public settings. For example, death cafes, first launched in Switzerland in 2004, have spread around the world, enabling people to speak about their fears over cake and coffee.
Our reluctance to talk about death is often taken as evidence that we are afraid, and therefore suppress thoughts about it. However, there is little direct evidence to support that we are. So what is a “normal” amount of death anxiety? And how does it manifest itself?
Experimenting with death
Judging by studies using questionnaires, we seem more bothered by the prospect of losing our loved ones than we do about dying ourselves. Such studies also show that we worry more about the dying process – the pain and loneliness involved, for example – than about the end of life itself. In general, when we are asked if we are afraid to die, most of us deny it, and report only mild levels of anxiety. The minority who report high levels of death anxiety are even considered psychologically abnormal – thanatophobic – and recommended for treatment.
On the other hand, our tendency to report only low levels of death anxiety might be a result of our reluctance to admit to our fear, to others and ourselves. Based on this hypothesis, social psychologists have, for almost 30 years now, examined the social and psychological effects of being confronted with our own mortality. In well over 200 experiments, individuals have been instructed to imagine themselves dying.
The first study of this kind was conducted on US municipal court judges, who were asked to set bond for an alleged prostitute in a hypothetical scenario. On average, judges who were confronted with their mortality beforehand set a much higher bail than those who were were not confronted – $455 versus $50. Since then, many other effects have been found among groups including the general population in many different countries.
Besides making us more punitive, thinking about death also increases our nationalistic bias, makes us more prejudiced against other racial, religious and age groups, and leads to other such parochial attitudes. Taken together, these dozens of studies show that being reminded of death strengthens our ties to the groups we belong to, to the detriment of those who are different from us.
Reminders of death also affect our political andreligious beliefs in interesting ways. On the one hand, they polarise us: political liberals become more liberal while conservatives become more conservative. Similarly, religious people tend to assert their beliefs more fervently while nonreligious people disavow more.
On the other hand, these studies have also found that thinking about death tempts us all – religious or otherwise – towards more religious belief in subtle, perhaps unconscious ways. And when the reminder of death is sufficiently powerful and when participants are not mindful of their prior political commitments, liberals as well as conservatives tend to endorse conservative ideas and candidates. Some researchersclaim that this could explain the US political shift to the right after 9/11.
What do the results mean?
But why does the prospect of death make us more punitive, conservative and religious? According to many theorists,reminders of death compel us to seek immortality. Many religions offer literal immortality, but our secular affiliations – such as our nation states and ethnic groups – can provide symbolic immortality. These groups and their traditions are a part of who we are, and they outlive us. Defending our cultural norms can boost our sense of belonging and being more punitive against individuals who violate cultural norms – such as prostitutes – is symptom of this.
Consistent with this interpretation, researchers have also found that reminders of death increase our desire for fame and for children, both of which are commonly associated with symbolic immortality. It turns out that we do want to be immortalised through our work and our DNA.
So what should we make of these new efforts to demystify death and dying through conversation? It is hard to say. Increasing death’s profile in our imaginations, private and public, might make us all more punitive and prejudiced, as the research found. But then perhaps we get these negative effects precisely because we are unaccustomed to thinking and talking about death.
In exposure therapy, carefully exposing patients to the source of their anxiety – an object, an animal, or even a memory – reduces their fear. In the same way, perhaps this most recent taboo-breaking trend will inoculate us psychologically, and make us more robust in the face of death.