One of my favorite novels is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go. It’s a sci-fi thriller about the moral implications of human cloning and a few years after it was published, they made a film adaptation. I went to see a screening and afterwards, there was a Q&A with Ishiguro. In that conversation, Ishiguro said something that profoundly altered my view of life and how I approach my daily existence.
Before I go on, let me tell you a bit about my situation at the time — it was 2010, two years after my stage 3 colon cancer diagnosis at age 32 and I was still in the midst of the period where they were monitoring my cancer to see if it had spread and was going to pop up in any other organs. Needless to say, I spent lots of time thinking about my own mortality and the fact that there was a decent chance I wouldn’t make it to 35 or 40.
So, here I was, facing a possible death at way too young of an age, and trying to figure out how to live life with this new “normal” of having an array of genetic anomalies that could cause new tumors at any time. I was searching for answers as to why this was happening and how I could make sense of the last few years where my life had been turned upside down.
Okay, back to the story of Ishiguro’s interview and the insights I had that day.
In order to understand what Ishiguro said, you kind of have to know the plot of the novel. It’s a mystery/thriller and I don’t want to ruin it for you, so I’ll wait right here while you go read the 288-page book….
Oh, hello again! Finished it? Okay, good 🙂
Just in case you didn’t get a chance to read it, here’s my best attempt to give you the necessary background without any major spoilers. In the novel, there’s a small group of humans that, due to technical issues, will only live to be about 35 years old. (Hmm… seeing any parallels with my situation at the time?) This group of people doesn’t know this at first, until someone lets it slip, and only then do they realize they only have a few more years to live.
When asked why he wrote a sci-fi book, Ishiguro replied, “I didn’t see it as a sci-fi book. I came to the idea for this story as I was thinking one day about our lifespan. We only live about 75 or 80 years old, but what if that number was cut down to 30? Or 35? How would we live our lives differently?” He then continued, “I realized that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s 75 years or 35 years, that’s still a pretty short amount of time we have on this planet, relatively speaking.”
That’s the line that hit me hard… “That’s a pretty short amount of time we have on this planet.”
Whether cancer got me at 35, or I survived and made it to 75, it was still the same question. What was I going to do with my limited time on this planet?
I come back to this question often. How do I want to spend my time here? This obviously informs my longer-term goals like work, relationships, etc. But it also makes me think about things on a smaller scale.
Do I want to spend my days feeling afraid or anxious about my future? Or do I want to be in the present moment and look around to find something beautiful or amazing in the here and now?
How do I want to relate to the people in my life? Do I want to let them know how I feel about them each time I talk to them, even if it seems silly or overly sentimental?
Do I want to worry about my appearance, my likability, or what other people think of me? Or do I want to dance to the beat of my own drummer, know that I only have that beat for another few decades?
You only have a limited amount of time here. How do you want to spend it? What do you want the general tone of your life to be? How do you want to feel most of the time? Silly? Serious? Meaningful? Loving?
What’s something you can do today that will feel like you made use of your time today? Tell someone you love them? Spend some time enjoying the feeling of sunshine on your face? Or the sound of your favorite song?
This may be my last day here, or I may have another 10,000 days but the question for me is the same.
How do I want to spend my time today?
For I only have some number of days left. I don’t know how many, so the question is the same … what can I do to enjoy my existence here today?
Please let me know — what are you going to do to enjoy your time here on this planet today?
I’ve spent a lot of time worrying the past few days. My worrying always tends to be about the same, familiar topics and it feels involuntary — I’ll be fine one minute and then suddenly I’ll start with a familiar spiral of worrying thoughts. Like a well-worn path in the woods, my neurons have forged paths through my white matter where they trigger the same fearful thoughts over and over.
Most of my worries are about safety and security. I worry about my business being successful. I worry if I will have enough money when I retire. I worry where I will live in 20, 30 or 40 years. And I worry about my health and if I will have people to take care of me when I get old and frail.
But I’m sure if my life circumstances were different, I’d find different things to worry about. If I had kids, I’m sure I’d be worried about them. If I owned a house, I’d probably worry about a big repair that I couldn’t afford. Even if I had millions of dollars, I might worry about never finding love.
Worry does that. It finds something to latch on to, regardless of our life circumstances.
But I know better than to let my worries completely take over. I know that they have a sneaky way of amplifying themselves and consuming my day if I let them drive the narrative.
So today instead of letting worry take over or trying to forge ahead by forcing myself to push aside the worry, I took a walk in the park to have a conversation with my worry.
The worry started its chatter, “Why are you in the park? You should be working on marketing right now. How are you ever going to be successful if you don’t start doing more?”
“Yes,” I answered, “I hear you. What are you really scared of?”
“I don’t want to be destitute and alone,” said my worry “I don’t want to feel like I have to keep pushing and working and struggling when I’m 80 and too tired to do it anymore.”
“But I’m pushing and struggling now,” I replied, “I’m not marketing because you’ve put so much pressure on me and my success that I can’t possibly be lit up and excited about it. What if I didn’t worry about what I was building for the future and instead just did what I enjoyed, right now?”
I reminded my worry none of us know what will happen in the future, life is quite unpredictable, so trying to live there is actually a bit silly. All we can do is live in the now.
“I’m scared,” my worry said.
“I know,” I replied.
“I want to feel taken care of,” said worry, “I want to feel connection and warmth and like I don’t have to do this alone.”
Ah, there it is. My core wound coming up again.
You see, as a small child and all through my adolescence, I had to do some really hard things with little to no support. My mother had a severe personality disorder and if I expressed any need for help or care, it was met with anger, blame, and vitriol, so I learned to do everything on my own. I still struggle with this today, and when I worry, it’s that I’ll be alone on my own again, with my heart broken and no one around to hold me or help me through.
I’m not actually scared of any particular circumstances, I’m scared to feel that heartbreak again.
But I’m not 7 anymore, and I know if I feel heartbreak, I will make it through. It won’t be pleasant, but it also won’t kill me.
So I ask my worry to show me where that heartbreak is in my body. It’s a tightness in my chest and heavy like a stone. I walk through the park and I simply feel it. I don’t make a story about being alone and unsupported in the future, or let it take over my thoughts about work, I simply let the physical sensations arise in my body.
It hurt. I felt so, so alone and so desperate for connection and care.
Then, I turned to my inner caregiver, that part of my awareness that I’ve cultivated over the last few years as a source of love and care, and I asked her to show me what care feels like.
I felt warmth, connection, laughter. I saw times with friends where I’d felt so comforted and loved. I saw the world as a welcoming place. I saw future relationships with people that I don’t even know yet that fulfil me in new and amazing ways.
Suddenly, I heard the birds in the park and I stopped to listen. Had they been singing this whole time? The grass had been freshly mowed and felt like soft velvet under my feet. There were two girls on the swings screaming and laughing their heads off.
“Right now, this world is safe,” I thought, “and I am not doing this alone. I am connected and cared for by my friends, this planet, and even by people I haven’t met yet.”
I could almost feel my brain chemistry change in that moment. Like one set of neurotransmitters had been reabsorbed while another came flooding in.
I felt safe. I felt connected. I felt like all was going to be okay.
I know it’s different for those of us that grew up in severely dysfunctional or abusive situations. I know how our brains developed differently under the constant stress, I know our nervous systems do their best to try to navigate the patterns of extreme highs and lows, and I know that all of that is now a part of my physiological makeup, and why when my worry comes along, it feels so invasive and involuntary.
But you can get to a place where you can feel comfort, safety, connection and care, even with no one else there. You can change the way you perceive the world, and when you do that, it no longer seems like such a scary place.
It takes time, it takes effort, and it takes a willingness to do some shadow work and let some intense feelings arise, but it can be done.
If you want some support in this, a sherpa to help you climb this mountain, then please reach out. You deserve to feel safe and comforted. You deserve to look at the world and see connection and care.
Your friends probably enjoy it when you get sick. No, not because they have a secret streak of schadenfreude. They don’t want too see you feel badly, but they do want to help.
Studies show that helping others has a direct link to our own happiness.
Whether it’s bringing soup to a sick friend, helping an elderly person carry their groceries, or volunteering with the homeless, helping others can have amazing effects on our happiness. Mark Snyder, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota states that, “People who volunteer tend to have higher self-esteem, psychological well-being, and happiness.”
So, let’s get out there and make some soup!
You’ll not only be helping someone who needs you, but you’ll be helping yourself, too. How’s that for a win-win?
If you have a friend that has been feeling a bit sad lately, share this post with them and then make a date to do some volunteering! I guarantee it will lift their spirits.
How do you like to give back or volunteer? I’m always looking for new ways to volunteer or help out, so please leave a comment with your favorite way to help others. I’d love to try it out!