I can’t remember where I first heard it, if I heard it at all. Maybe it’s just one of those splinters that become lodged in our minds as we scrape across the rugged planks of this life. Time and experience exact painful cuts and stings, yet we often forget how the wounds were inflicted and in the end are only left with callouses of wisdom as our reminders. But I’m rather hoping I picked it up elsewhere; I don’t want to believe I could devise something so disturbing.
The book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff practically launched the self-help industry niche of reminding readers to focus on what really matters. Numerous book since have offered their own remedy by employing the same age-old question, what will you most regret on your deathbed? But what’s most disheartening is that seventeen years and countless interpretations of the book later, most of us are still no better at keeping our lives in proper perspective. We get no less caught up in the trifling small stuff today than we did before we even knew it by that name.
For the better part of my adult life, I’ve had to remind myself what’s most important. Like the rest, I get focused on chasing life’s shiny objects, the great job, sweet house, car, six pack abs, whatever is currently trending over at the Joneses. I’ve read those books, attended the seminars, and still I struggle with keeping my eye off the glittering traps of success.
I’ve taken ‘keeping the main thing the main thing’ to what some might call extremes. Four years ago I did the unthinkable and ditched my cable television, cutting myself off from the mainstream media, Hollywood, and most would say reality. Now I get my news in easy-to-swallow doses, I’ve had my Gossip trading card revoked, and when other guys start talking sports I just walk away. I save about a grand each year and my overall attitude has spiked 25 points – but I still can’t watch Good Morning America without coming unhinged.
Last year, over the course of six months, I became convinced my son was going to die. The source of this trepidation isn’t completely known. I suffered most at night while lying in bed; within minutes of putting my head on the pillow I would grow paralyzed with fear imagining any number of ways his end might happen. I would try whatever I could to relocate my thoughts onto something less apocalyptic. But those attempts only seemed to make it worse. So one night, I’m not sure when or why, I totally went there. I allowed myself to completely experience the full weight of what something so devastating might bring. I opened myself up to every fathomable emotion one might imagine in such a circumstance. I visualized the events in every detail. I saw him in the casket, what he might be wearing, the smells, the anguish, and embraced the reality pressing down leaving me unable to breathe.
The experience was utterly, completely, and wholly terrifying – and I’ve never been the same parent since.
It was this event, the acceptance of the unthinkable, which led me to recall what I’d long ago chosen to forget. The splinter was now free from my subconscious. There are certain thoughts we just don’t consider, their reality would be too unbearable, so we avoid them at every and all costs. We keep from picturing the debilitating accident, cancer, or death of a loved one. So it happens, when those of us do suffer such tragedies we invariably regret that we didn’t do more when we had the chance. We wish we had lived more freely, stopped smoking earlier, or picked up the phone more often. We walk away from those experiences with new callouses of wisdom and the promise to do things differently. The splinter felt no less strange this time than when I first realized it, but now it possessed far different meaning:
To help keep our attention on what matters most - stop and imagine you’re at the funeral of someone you love.
It’s easy to see why I wanted to keep that shard buried deep within. At first glance it seems entirely sadistic. Why would someone do such as thing? In a world with books such as The Secret and Think and Grow Rich we’ve become trained to keep our thoughts directed towards more material and lofty endeavors.
But have you stopped to consider what is it about a funeral or just death, even of an acquaintance, that rattles us so? Why do we leave any service more determined to focus on what matters – our kids, spouse, friends, to give more and take less? Because during those moments we are compelled to imagine it’s those closest to us lying in the coffin. In that instant we are forced to take account of our lives and what we should be doing – but aren’t, and accessing where our priorities really lie. We then get in our cars with a guilty sense of relief that our child, wife, or parent isn’t in the hearse, and grasping the brevity of life we pledge a commitment to focus less on call reports and bottom lines and be a better husband, loving father, and dependable friend. But for most of us the emotion is as fleeting as it is pervasive and soon we’re back to our old ways, putting what should be last first and what ought to be first last.
Parents worry about their children because they know the dangers. They understand what might happen, it’s a natural response. What’s unnatural however is dwelling on those thoughts. We know our child could be kidnapped we just don’t contemplate it. We banish any such thoughts as soon as they surface, vigorously shaking our head hoping they’ll fly out our ears. But there’s a stark difference between lingering on those thoughts and using them as motivation.
That night I finally let myself fully embrace the fear of the very worst I discovered a dormant hunger, a desire to be more present, more engaged, more intentional in my son’s life. And with it came a determination, God forbid that dreadful day should ever arrive, that I would never walk away wishing I’d focused more on what mattered most.