Living the Questions

Finding peace in uncertain times.

A Surprising Way to Cultivate Contentment

Learn how to rearrange your priorities and live in the present.

You wouldn't think that dwelling on death could make you happier, but considerable clinical and scientific evidence points to the benefits of doing just this.

Irvin D. Yalom, M.D., a noted psychiatrist interested in the interplay between spirituality and psychology, has done extensive work with cancer patients and their families. He found that the monumental shock of such a diagnosis results in far-reaching changes in the patient's life, including:

  • A rearrangement of life's priorities: what is trivial emerges as such, and can be ignored.
  • A sense of liberation: being able to choose not to do those things you do not wish to do.
  • An enhanced sense of living in the immediate present, rather than postponing life until some point in the future.
  • A vivid appreciation of the elemental facts of life: the changing seasons, the wind, falling leaves, the last Christmas, and so forth.
  • Deeper communication with loved ones than before the crisis.
  • Fewer interpersonal fears, less concern about rejection, greater willingness to take risks than before the crisis.

Confronting the idea of death makes us live more fully in the present. We don't know what tomorrow will bring; we only have this day, this moment. When we are fully present in the moment, not thinking about the future, we're less likely to plague ourselves with the “what ifs” of life. In addition, noted psychologist Todd Kashdan, Ph.D. writes in his Huffington Post article, "Confronting Death with an Open, Mindul Attitude", that greater openness to thinking about death allows for more compassion for and fairness to others.

Although it wasn't a life-or-death situation, I vividly remember that my first back surgery was a wake up call. It was the type of existential turning point that makes you consider what is truly important in life.

Before the surgery, I had become fairly immobilized with pain. I wasn't able to see many clients (it hurt just to sit), and I couldn't do much around the house. I had also been doing some volunteer work, and now I was forced to say no to any such requests. After the surgery, my recovery took longer than I planned. I was quite limited in what I could do.

Because I'd always tended to judge myself by external standards, particularly by how much I achieved or accomplish, I had a lot of "internal adjusting" to do. I questioned whether or not I had any value as a person since I wasn't able to do anything productive. What good was I to anyone? 

Somehow, slowly, I began to realize that I could still do, or perhaps be, the things that really mattered: I made my husband smile, I read my son a book, I listened to a friend’s problems. I came to view myself differently. Before my back surgery, I sometimes made diminishing remarks about myself such as, “I'm too nice.”  Now I thought to myself, nice is good. Nice is something of value.

I also lost some of my vanity regarding how I looked. I moved slowly and awkwardly after surgery, but I didn't care—at least I was moving. I took a pillow everywhere I went so I could sit more comfortably; that's an idea I wouldn’t have considered before. I even wore sensible shoes!

I just saw a moving story on television about a man, Chris, who had been diagnosed with ALS. He had a wild idea that he wanted to deliver Krispy Kream donuts to as many people as possible, especially kids at schools. Chris says if dying has taught him anything, it’s about how to live. He says you have to do what you can to make people smile while you still have the chance.

Luckily, you don't have to be diagnosed with cancer, have back surgery, or go through anything else catastrophic to live more fully in the present. All it takes is an awareness of the time-limited nature of existence and a willingness and openness to let this awareness inspire your everyday life.

Try this. The next time you find yourself dwelling needlessly on something, ask yourself, if I knew this was the last day on earth, would I choose to spend it worrying about this? Likely, you wouldn't. So if you wouldn't be concerned about it then, why worry about it now?

I know, it's not that easy. You simply can't  turn off your anxieties like a light switch. In fact, if I were reading this advice, I’d probably feel guilty for wasting my time worrying! We're all human; none of us can live life to the fullest all the time. But facing the fragility of life can help us shift gears and focus not on the future we cannot control but on the present, in all of its rich textures.

“Though the physicality of death destroys us,

 the idea of death may save us.” – Irvin Yalom

               

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I also write at The Self-Compassion Project and Shyness Is Nice.

To read more of my posts on this blog, click here.

I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.

Photo credit: Girl via flickr, others by Pink Sherbet Photography via flickr 

Dr. Barbara Markway, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with over twenty years of experience. She is the author of four popular psychology books and has been featured in media nationwide.

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