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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Learning How To Live From Those Who Are Dying

We should learn lessons on living from those that have died successfully.  If that sounds convoluted, or even fatalistic, it is not.  Succinctly put, dying successfully involves living even more triumphantly. Many of us neither live well nor die well.  Substantially, that is because we not only have been indoctrinated with false assumptions and values, but also have been conditioned to live comparatively and competitively, in every aspect of our lives.

I want to draw on four people in my life as examples of dealing with the prospect of dying, or, at least, dealing with a life-threatening illness.

The first, diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1960s, responded by angrily determining to beat the disease, even though radical surgery was required.  Her prognosis was terrible, but she lived another ten years, at last weakened beyond recovery in a serious car accident.

The second died of throat cancer, after denying that his smoking was a contributor and refusing to deal with the growth on his neck for over a year.  When, in the latter stages of cancer, he was told that he might gain a few weeks or months of life if he quit, responded, “It isn’t worth it,” and smoked to his last day.

The third bemoaned his fate, gave up and died quickly.

The fourth person accepted the diagnosis, looked into alternatives, made adjustments in his life and continued on with daily activities, letting the diagnosis have as little impact on the way that he lived as possible.

These people are representative of the world at large, and dealt with their illnesses in typical manner, with varying degrees of success.  Two, of course, decreased the quality and duration of their lives significantly by their inaction. 

Dr.  Fiore, a specialist in issues of dying,  recommends that a person with a fatal illness starts by taking charge of his or her life, asking lots of good questions, and making informed choices regarding doctors, hospitals and treatments. He further suggests that the patient should express his feelings through talking or writing them down, singing or even screaming. He concludes by telling his patients that they should treat the illness, not like a Rocky Balboa fight, but trusting the body to know what to do.

Psychological researcher, Dr. C. Scanlon, in his 1989 article entitled, “Creating a vision of hope: The challenge of palliative care.” (Oncology Nursing Forum, 16(4), 491-496.), itemizes the following as the primary worries of a person with a terminal illness: 1) Further debilitation and dependency, 2) Pain and suffering,  3) Consequences for dependents and arranging affairs, 4) An uncertain future, 5) Lingering, 6) Dying alone, 7) Loss of control, 8) Changing relationships, 9) Existential concerns,  10) Change in mental functioning and 11) Afterlife.

As we examine each of these concerns, we find that, in a nutshell, people facing death primarily focus on issues relating to loss of control.  By placing health management responsibly in the hands of the patient, the stress associated with loss of control is diminished.

This concern over control in death is the same with control in life.  Most of us ride life, instead of steering.  We are not in control, and, in turn, we experience stress.  More stress, less happiness.  Less happiness, less fulfillment. 

Such a simple conclusion seems --- well, too simple!  It is not.  Those people with an external locus of control, who give their lives into the hands of others, are less fulfilled that those who take control of those things that impact on their own lives, and those things over which they can exercise responsible control.  They are less stressed, more vibrant, more explorative, more willing and able to face hurdles, not as insurmountable problems, but as challenges to be faced and overcome.

Death is an insurmountable problem.  Dying is not, and should be approached by seeking to maintain as much control over the process and facts as possible.  Living, equally, is a process that demands that to be successfully navigated and enjoyed we must be involved in and managing the events in our lives.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Live Life As If You Were Already Retired

From the time we begin our adult working life, we are inoculated with the belief that we should plan, save and direct substantial amounts of our energy toward being ready for retirement.  Yet, we live a retired lifestyle for an average of sixteen years, and work for nearly 40. So where is the wisdom of focusing on the future, when it is so distant and such a small portion of our adult life?

The concept of retirement planning is, of course, with merit.  However, living for today also carries merit.  There are extremes of lifestyle focused in each of these directions, with those that indolently absorb the moment, but are totally unprepared for any contingency or emergency that may arise, counting on society to take care of their needs.  On the other hand, there are frugal, obsessive individuals who hoard pennies to be ready for old age, and, when old age arrives, fret over every coin that is spent, even when faced with the truth that they have more than enough set aside to live comfortably.  In the middle is the route to comfort and balance, making the most of each moment without selfish indulgence.

Unfortunately, modern technologies and modern standards blur the lines between responsible work and planning, enjoying one’s life and being a contributing part of the world around us.  Our laptop computers, tablets and smart phones carry our personal lives to work, our business lives home.  Exclusive, valued time spent with close friends has become shared with Facebook and Twitter, email and text friendships at our fingertips.   Quiet time frequently is shattered with the beep, tweet, chirp, ring or jingle that alerts us to incoming communications.  Few of us demonstrate the will power or social awareness to defer answering these devices, regardless of where we are or what we may be doing.  We live, not for the moment, but governed by that moment – a moment owned by whoever is intruding into our time.  There is no exclusivity to our time, whether it be work, play, community personal or family.

We have become a society that has no future, but is directed to save for it.  We have become a culture that has a surfeit of time, but gives it away frivolously, then bemoans the loss.  We have become slaves to the moment, but that moment is defined by others, for the most part.

To embrace the idea that we should live for the moment is as polarizing as to embrace the idea that we should focus exclusively on the future.  However, we do need to value the moment, and anticipate the upcoming life. 

Studies show that we derive more value from small, frequent pleasures than from one large indulgence.  On the other hand, analyses reveal that we are more stressed by frequent minor annoyances beyond our control than by larger, infrequent crises.  The logical corollary to these two conclusions is that, to get the most out of life, we need to take time to embrace the world around us, but to do so in a manner that provides long term satisfaction rather than short term spikes of pleasurable but selfish indulgence.  The future will be shaped by how we view and interact with life today.  If we opt to ride the crests and valleys formed by others around us, we will experience less enjoyment in the moment than if we take a balanced view of our contribution to the environment around us in relation to what we would like to see come back to us.  We should grab each moment, not each day, and look to being the best we can be, not look to grabbing the most we can get.

By snatching at every incoming communication, by mashing work with personal life, by sacrificing friendly personal interaction for electronic jabber, we are ingesting everything, but like the cow in the foxtail patch discovers, everything is not always a pleasure to eat!

Balance, then, is vital.  Enjoy the moments of pleasure, but enjoy, also, the moments of effort and hard work.  Save and plan for the future, but also plan and spend as if the future is today.  Use technology to embrace life, rather than letting gadgets sap life from your fingertips.  Live each moment as if you were already retired!