A Year to Live
By Geneen Roth
A friend of mine who's a surgeon was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She told me that when she heard the news, she had two distinct reactions: The first was shock and fear for her life; the second was, "Wow! Now I can stay home from work for a few months."
Surprised, I asked her about that second response. "I am so tired," she said. "I work all day taking care of other people. Having cancer, as drastic as it is, gives me an excuse to take care of myself. I've been wanting to redecorate my house for years, wanting to wake up in the morning and putter around the yard. I've been wanting to write a book, but I've never had the time. It's not that I'm not worried and afraid now. But I'm also strangely relieved at being able to focus on myself."
Should it really take a wake-up call this dire to get us to reorder our lives? Unfortunately, sometimes that is what's required. It's hard to give ourselves what we need. We spend so much time and energy trying to balance work and family that we forget to factor ourselves in. Just a few more weeks, we think. As soon as my schedule clears. Then I'll slow down and catch up on all the personal maintenance! My friend doesn't, of course, believe that being tired and wanting to putter caused her cancer, but she does believe that, among many other repercussions, the diagnosis frees her to do what she's wanted to do for a long time. "Besides everything else cancer is," she told me, "it's an opportunity to reexamine your priorities."
After talking to my friend, I decided not to wait for a terrifying diagnosis to start thinking about my own life. What was I postponing until a future time when I'd be successful enough, old enough, or, God forbid, sick enough to do what I most wanted to do?
I remember an exercise I used to suggest in my workshops: I'd ask the participants to make a list of things they would do if they were told they had a year to live. After that, it was a month, a week, and then, finally, a day.
With a year to live, they'd say things like: I'd travel to Istanbul, live in France, stop working, learn to weave, eat as much ice cream as I wanted, eat all the potato chips I've never allowed myself, spend as much time with my children as I possibly could, binge on sweets, stop dragging myself to the gym.
With six months to live, they'd say things like: I'd go on a major shopping spree and buy everything I'd ever wanted, I'd travel constantly, I'd never travel again, I'd eat dessert after every meal and especially after breakfast, I'd stop doing anything I didn’t want to do, I'd learn to sing, I'd eat whatever I wanted, I'd have a show of my paintings, I'd spend all my time with people I loved, I'd spend my time alone, learn to meditate, learn to tango, eat in the middle of the night and not worry about burning off the calories.
As they imagine they have less and less time to live, the answers become more poignant: I'd hold my children close, I'd tell my husband how lucky I feel to be with him. I'd smell the air, I'd crunch in the leaves, I'd watch the birds, I'd spend every waking moment I could being grateful for still being able to see, breathe, smell, touch.
Bingeing is never a part of this last list. No one wants to miss a moment of being awake or alive by overeating or not feeling well. Which is a good thing to notice.
When you imagine that you have a month or a week to live, you suddenly become aware of what's really important. The entire cheesecake you wanted to eat, you had to eat, suddenly becomes an obstacle. You realize that when you eat compulsively, you feel drained and tired, unable to pay attention to the things you love about being alive, the things you might not notice as you run from errand to e-mail. The size of your thighs no longer seems so crucial. Some of the things that feel important when you think you have all the time in the world seem inconsequential when each moment becomes precious.
Our lives turn on a dime. One minute everyone is fine; the next minute, a doctor delivers bad news, or there's an accident. And even a long, healthy life goes by too quickly. Time flies; it gallops. Would you yank "eat my way through the menu at the Cheesecake Factory" off your to-do list if you only had a short time to live? Then it shouldn't be there now!
"On the last day of my life, I would want to plant a tree," the poet W.S. Merwin said. As for me, I would want to love extravagantly (and, although I wouldn't binge, I would definitely eat a piece of 77 percent bittersweet chocolate sprinkled with sea salt). Ask yourself what you'd do if you didn't have endless time to life. Ask yourself what you're not doing now that you'd do on the last day of your life. Especially, ask yourself where food fits into all this. Does it deaden you? Is it a consolation prize, a substitute for all the pleasures you really want?
Take the time you have now to look at your priorities through new eyes before reality forces you to. Imagine yourself in that last year, six months, month, day. Would food be your chief delight, or simply a pleasant way to nourish your body and sustain your energy so you could do what you really loved? Listen to your longings. Ask yourself, What am I waiting for? And when you realize the answer is, Nothing, dive in.
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