We’ve all lost friends too soon, and their deaths bring up the big questions. Am I making the most of my time? What do I want to accomplish yet?
After a coworker’s recent death, I wrote in my journal: “Keeping mortality in mind is supposed to help a person make the most of every moment, but I find it a tricky proposition. The flip side is beating myself up over wasting time. When is time really wasted? We need to relax, recharge, escape, and dream. Doing nothing might be more beneficial than crossing another thing off a list. Constant awareness of death makes me feel stressed and exhausted. As for what I want to accomplish yet, which accomplishments matter? The achievements that will outlive us are those that improve the conditions of the living. Personal accomplishments, experiences, and acquisitions will be irrelevant whatever awaits us after.”
Words to make me feel better about what I haven’t done. Yet not to be brushed aside. I’ve always felt pulled between two poles: setting self-improvement goals and letting up on myself. As 2021 starts, many advice givers counsel us to forget about New Year’s resolutions because getting through the pandemic is achievement enough. The opposite advice is in an article in this morning’s Chicago Tribune; the writer talks about goals, schedules, habits, and plans as being “more essential right now to maintain productivity and sanity.”
I asked a friend who has lost two middle-aged brothers, and whose husband has already lost his three best friends, how all those deaths influence how she lives.
“Do what makes you happy” is the code she lives by. “Enjoy the simple things.” She mentioned her late mother’s pleasure in the daily crossword puzzle.
Can life’s purpose be found in crossword puzzles? It sounds silly put that way, but maybe the accumulation of the simple things makes for a full life.
I’m prone to thinking that I’m supposed to be doing something for the common good, a notion that was reinforced by the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 (“It’s not enough to be nonracist; we must be antiracist and take action.”). I’ve long regretted that I never found a cause. I admire people who run for office, start a nonprofit, organize a protest. Unfortunately, thinking that I’m supposed to help change the world hasn’t led to the necessary ideas or passion.
I thought about my recently deceased coworker. She enjoyed time with her husband, her cats, her home, gardening, cooking, reading. Nothing grandiose there, but her coworkers hold up her life as one well lived. I remember asking her once whether she aspired to a higher job. No, she didn’t think about a career ladder; all she wanted was to enjoy her work.
Enjoyment, doing what makes you happy, is the theme I’m hearing.
Whenever I’ve forced myself to volunteer for something because I thought I should, I didn’t sustain the motivation to continue if the duties bored me. I doubt that activists pressure themselves into activism; it must please them. My latest volunteer gig, writing for the League of Women Voters of Chicago, involves tasks I enjoy, giving me hope for staying on.
Activities outside of volunteering also don’t stick if I don’t enjoy them. Great Books groups, photography classes, cooking classes: these were among the things tried and dropped. The interests that lasted, like reading, walking, genealogy, and gardening, are ones I don’t need to motivate myself to do.
Retirees don’t have to think so much anymore about time management. Isn’t this the stage of life for letting go of schedules, for relaxing and being more spontaneous? At least I’m not pressuring myself about writing a book, learning another language, or following any of the must-before-you-die scripts out there.
Do what makes me happy. It’s a guide for work, volunteering, and leisure. It’s a plan for making the most of the time left.