When I was a kid, I remember riding in the car with my dad when we came upon an accident. A pickup truck had stalled on the railroad tracks as a train was approaching. Luckily the driver got out before the train hit the truck. Unfortunately, however, a dog had been chasing the truck and was killed by the train. I’ll never forget how bad I felt for the dog and thinking that if the dog had focused on the train instead of the truck, it might have survived.
When I started my social work career in 1986, I worked for a large hospice organization in Northern Virginia. One of the greatest lessons I learned from my patients was also about focus. The insight came from the people who said, “I wish I’d done this a few years ago” or “I should have done that when I was younger” or “Why didn’t I retire earlier?”
These patients had come to the conclusion that they had not set their priorities properly and that perhaps, their focus had been on the wrong things. Additionally, they knew that as they approached the end of their lives, they were unable to do much about it.
When we’re young, most of us think we know how our lives will play out. Some of us might even have a specific plan with goals we want to achieve. And yet, as we get older and gain the gift of hindsight, we realize that we may not have ended up where we thought we would.
Early in my speaking career, I attended a conference of the National Speakers Association and was talking with my friend and colleague Carl Hammerchlag. Carl is a talented speaker and brilliant psychiatrist. At one point during the conversation, I asked him, “How do I know if I’m where I’m supposed to be at any particular point in my life?”
Without missing a beat, Carl said, “If you’re always worried about where you should be, you’ll never be.”
At the time, I wanted a more concrete answer. I was looking for a tool, like a tape measure, that would show me how much I had veered off my path. Or perhaps, I thought, there was a mathematical formula I could employ which would calculate if my x+y had not equaled z. But the idea that I should “just be” seemed, well, kinda nuts. I couldn’t wrap my simple-minded brain around the concept.
In time, though, I started hearing comments like this with a different perspective. I realized that his suggestion was about being true to the moment rather than focusing on some ideal that may or may not be appropriate for me. He actually gave me a true gift that day and I’ll be forever grateful.
One of my favorite books is by Jon Kabat-Zinn and it’s called, Wherever You Go, There You Are. It’s a book about mindfulness and as the title suggests, we really are always where we should be—the word “should,” by the way, does not suggest a judgment but instead, a simple acknowledgement of what is.
So, if we assume that we are where we’re supposed to be at any point in our lives, then what can we do to make the most of those moments? I think it boils down to two critical pursuits: deepening our relationships and serving others. Let me explain.
When I look back on the vast majority of hospice patients I visited, the conversations focused primarily on the people in their lives. Many times, they discussed the relationships that were most important to them. Sometimes, they talked about a challenging relationship that needed to be mended. And occasionally, they focused on a severely damaged relationship that could never be healed. The people were a key element in these patients’ journeys and even though they enjoyed other important experiences, the emphasis kept returning to the relationships. That taught me the value of the connections in our lives and how we need to enrich them whenever possible.
Beyond the need for nurturing our relationships, I believe we also need to serve. When we serve, we get out of our self-centeredness and pursue an other-centered activity. When I worked as a social worker, I regularly encountered people who were in situations far less fortunate than mine. However, when I transitioned to my speaking career, I spent most of my time in hotels, airports, and conference centers. I no longer encountered the same types of people and I felt that I had lost a personal connection to the disadvantaged individuals I had known in my social work role.
As I got older, I realized what I was missing and decided to find a way to not only recapture my role of serving others but to understand, in a more direct way, their needs. Today, I am a volunteer ambulance driver and I cut wood for those without heat. As a result, I regularly come in contact with people who may struggle to pay bills, to put food on their tables, or to address their healthcare needs. I am so grateful for this newfound, yet familiar, opportunity to build relationships and to serve.
We live in a culture where power and celebrity are revered. This misdirection of priorities can entice us to pursue fame and fortune rather than human connection. During this home-bounded-ness time of the Coronavirus, we’ve seen many examples of the need for human connection. Additionally, we’ve become more appreciative of those who are taking serious risks to serve others.
Ultimately, I believe life is all about other people— to deepen relationships and to serve those in need. When we do this, from wherever we are at the time, we will be exactly where we are supposed to be. And then, when we get to the end of our lives, we will be able to look back with both satisfaction and gratitude.