The poet Mary Oliver offers a powerful question in her poem, “The Summer Day.” She asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Quite a fitting question to ask ourselves, particularly at the dawning of a new year.
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot these past few weeks. I spent the better part of the month of December traveling on a medical mission in Nepal and then on to India for the remainder of my trip. I stayed in Varanasi at a guest house on the Ganges River with a friend who’d come to India to write a book.
The things we saw and experienced in Varanasi broke my heart wide open. There was death, suffering and poverty all around us. There was simply no way to sanitize or deny what we saw and experienced. The suffering was raw, unfiltered and in your face. We witnessed bodies burning, corpses being carried through the streets on their way to the burning Ghats, children begging for rupees for dinner and hundreds of starving dogs foraging through garbage to survive.
And yet, in the midst of all the squalor and suffering, on our last morning, while eating breakfast on the rooftop terrace of our hotel, we noticed a little girl about nine or ten dancing with glee on a patio of a house a few hundred feet away. She was in a pure state of bliss, and her joy was contagious. In the midst of the misery all around her, she’d made a choice to really live, to discover a sense of beauty in the tragic.
When I arrived back in San Francisco on the final flight of my trip, I had a call that our dear friend Jay, who had battled cancer for over four years, had passed away. I interviewed Jay last Easter for the final chapter of my book. I wanted to capture his story because despite very challenging circumstances in his life, he was someone who’d learned how to thrive. I coached Jay about 12 years ago and since his cancer diagnosis, I’d marveled at how he’d used his illness to express his purpose and make such a difference in so many lives. As a buddy for people with cancer, as an advocate to resolve the shortage of generic drugs, and as a brother, uncle and friend, he had touched so many people.
In that interview when I asked Jay what thriving meant to him he said, “To me, thriving means to continue learning, being aware and being engaged with the communities we are part of (family, friends, work, etc.) and to be optimistic in your view of life. I also think that people who thrive have a general sense of contentment. Being happy fluctuates, but contentment doesn’t have to. Being content on a regular basis is what’s important. Being of value to someone, to something or to some cause and expressing your purpose in life also contributes to thriving.”
He continued, “If you asked me whether I’d have chosen to go through this journey I’ve been on over the past few years, I have to say the answer is yes. Of course, I’d prefer not to have cancer, but from both a personal and emotional perspective, it’s been a gift. It’s forced me to let go of expectations and desires and live in the present and appreciate life in a much deeper way.”
Jay continued to speak about how deepening his sense of trust had been so instrumental in his journey. He said, “I believe this journey is what I’ve been given and I trust it’s for the good. I will probably die sooner than I’d like to, but I trust it’s for a reason. Almost the minute I got diagnosed, I believed it was the path that I’d been given.”
What enabled Jay thrive was his commitment and focus on living fully, regardless of the time he had left. “I’m pretty realistic,” he said, “That a cure probably won’t happen in my lifetime. But I’d rather live two more great years than five crappy ones.” And that, he did in spades.
The little dancing girl in Varanasi and my friend Jay are wonderful examples of people who made a choice to thrive, despite their conditions. I am honored to have been touched so deeply by their wisdom. And I am committed in 2014 to try not to waste one moment of this marvelous gift of life that I’ve been given.
As I close these thoughts today for the first blog post of the year, I’d like to leave you with a question ad an invitation:
What is one choice you can make or action you can take in 2014 that will help you thrive and more fully experience your one wild and precious life? What difference do you want to make this year in your work, your family, and in the communities you serve?