With talk of little else for months, coronavirus has forced us to start accepting our mortality. From here it feels much harder not to celebrate being alive, to confront our fears, take risks, and experiment.
Before COVID, most of us already understood that who we love is more important than any achievements or possessions. Rationally this made sense to me too. But I didn’t feel it in my gut until I was told by doctors that I had just days to live. I was so unwell that the matron in a public (NHS) hospital in London allowed my partner to bring my dog into the ward. That’s how certain medics were that I would be dead by the morning. Both my partner and my dog, an Irish Terrier, Sam, slept with me for what everyone, including me, thought would be my last night.
I got lucky, and here I am, still alive. But the real gift to me was that being forced to face my own mortality also helped me understand with life-changing clarity that all that matters in life is who you love and who loves you. I emerged with my values permanently re-arranged.
Before March 2020 “So busy! So crazy! Completely stressed!” was part of a pantomime many of us kept up in order to avoid looking too closely at the meaning of our lives, our mortality, and our insignificance in the face of death. By forcing us all to start accepting our mortality, COVID has also shone a new light on those areas of our work or social life that may have previously kept us busy, but may have left us unfulfilled.
The author Terry Pratchett wrote that “no one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away,” and with our work and social life effectively killed off, for many these past months have been a rehearsal for our final retirement. For those of us who, before March 2020, wondered if the ripples we caused would ever finally die away, lockdown surely provided the answer.
If you are lucky enough to have a partner, a best friend, mother, father, or child, I hope you were there for each other. Because, unless you are a key worker, I’m guessing that apart from your nearest and dearest, the rest of the world did not notice you were gone. If in doubt, just check your phone log.
End Friendships That No Longer Serve You
Has lockdown revealed who your true friends are? Are you stuck in a toxic friendship that you’d like to end? Do you still pretend to be close with someone who you no longer trust or respect?
Perhaps the two of you were once on the same track, and you’ve taken divergent paths? The fact is, having a “friend” whose choices and values undermine yours can feel as exhausting as having a friend who has not grown or moved on since you first met.
When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let go, says organizational expert, Marie Kondo, there are only two: “an attachment to the past or a fear for the future. The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past. Keep only those things that speak to your heart.”
When we realize that our life is almost over and we look back, most of us feel we have not honored even a half of our dreams, and die knowing that it was due to choices we had made, or not made. In a wonderful book, titled The Top Five Regrets of the Dying — A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, the author and palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware, notes that our greatest dying regret is “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
The ultimate takeaway from Bronnie Ware’s encounters with hundreds of men and women at the very end of their lives is this: Most of us do not realize until the end that joy and lightness is a choice. The hundreds of men and women who Bronnie cared for in their last days, were stuck in old patterns and habits. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to themselves, until the very end, that they were content when they were not.
Fear causes us to hold on to what we have, whether or not it is fulfilling. Right now, as many of us face the death of our career, our sector, our way of life, is possibly the best moment we will ever have to let go.
Do Something You love
Having overcome your fear of death, you may find you have conquered that other paralyzing human fear, the fear of failing. After all, compared with loss of life, how deadly is it to try something that doesn’t work out? If you wanted to be a painter, but ended up as an accountant, now might be the time for you to get out your easel. We feel better about ourselves and more excited by life, when we’re doing whatever it is we love to do.
Next, you can let go of holding on to a direction your life was taking that did not bring you joy. If you’re the founder of a business you no longer love, or that is causing you stress, you can close down. If you’ve been let go from a career that was no longer engaging or fulfilling, by all means, mourn the job security, but try to celebrate this once in a lifetime opportunity to connect with what brings you joy.
Be Who You Want to Be
Living into our sense of possibility can be hard enough in “normal” times but when potentially your life, as well as your livelihood (and the lives and livelihoods of those you love), are under threat, showing up in the world as anything other than anxious and scared can be especially difficult. That’s why now, more than ever, how you show up for colleagues and friends will come to define you in their minds for years to come. Perhaps you are seen as someone who’s a bit tone-deaf to the emotional needs of others — now is a great time to fix that.
Maybe you’re thought of as someone who can’t be counted on in high-pressure situations — why not step up and show your calm center. If your role is client-facing and you suspect certain buyers doubt your commitment to them, this is the time to show them just how committed you are. Pitching when a buyer’s coffers are full is one thing. Pitching your heart out when all acquisitions have been frozen and your team is working from home signals a whole different level of commitment.
We have an opportunity to be more caring, centered, grounded, and committed than we (or any of our colleagues or clients) ever expected us to be. If you’re up for the challenge, the qualities with which you respond to this crisis could facilitate an instant and hopefully lasting transformation.
Above all, we can change our relationship to time. Instead of boasting about how busy you are and how little time you have for the people (including yourself) who you love, how about savoring all the unexpected free time you suddenly have. Yes, I get that free time is also unpaid time, but it’s far from worthless. After all, what is more precious than time for yourself and those you love?