18. The Best Way to Keep Perspective

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I define organizing as arranging your possessions to support what’s important in your life. But sometimes people have told me either that they don’t know what’s important in their life, or they forget what’s important in their life. Sometimes we get wrapped up in the busywork of day-to-day life, and before we realize it, we’ve spent a lot of time and energy on stuff that isn’t really important.

Today, I’d like to share what I have found is a great way to keep the perspective of what is truly important. In my opinion, this is the most important of all my posts, and probably the most important message I have to share.

In order to introduce it, I’ll need to share a personal experience as background. When my mom was diagnosed as being terminally ill, I moved back in to my parents’ house. One day during this time, I was out buying groceries, and in one of the aisles of the supermarket, I heard somebody say, “I just can’t find shoes to match this skirt.” I thought, “Some things are problems, and some things really aren’t problems.” Now I have nothing against those who are into fashion or who like to look good. My intention is not to criticize anyone who likes to have matching shoes — it’s not about that — but when confronted with the imminent death of a loved one, a lot of things didn’t seem to matter.

It occurred to me that many of the things that seem important in day-to-day life, that we invest so much time and energy in, really aren’t important compared with something as life-changing as the death of a loved one.

Many of the people who are important in my life now, including my beloved sweetie and life partner, are older than my mom was when she died. We never know for sure how long we have with people. I realize that anyone in my life, including me, could be gone at almost any time. It’s important to remember how precious life is and to not take things or people for granted.

According to legend, a certain Native American warrior would ride into battle shouting, “It is a good day to die.” Inspired by this, I ask myself, at least once a week, “Is today a good day to die?” Now this doesn’t mean I’m suicidal. For me, it’s another way of asking myself,

• Do the people in my life know how much I love them?
• Do I have unfinished business or unresolved issues with friends or family?
• If I were to die today, would I have any deep regrets?
• Am I doing what I really want to do with my life?

Some people may think it’s morbid to think about the possibility of their own death. I couldn’t disagree more strongly. In my opinion, considering our own mortality helps us become more clear about what’s important and therefore helps us live more fully! It’s not about how we die. It’s about how we live. When I say, “it is a good day to die,” it doesn’t mean that I’m preparing for death, or that I’ve given up on life. In fact, the opposite is true. It means that I’m so clear about who I am and what’s important to me that I would still do it even if I were to die in the process.

So, I invite you, if you’re willing, to consider the following. I invite you to imagine that you’ve just found out that you have three months to live.

How would your life change if you knew that?
What would you do with your remaining time?
Do you have unfinished business with anyone?
Do others know how much you love them?
Is there anything you wish you’d said that you haven’t?
Have you done with your life what you want to?

I am inviting you to consider these questions as a tool to get in touch with what’s truly important in your life. And who knows? You may still be around in three months, but you may not. In any case, the information you get from asking yourself these questions can be invaluable. If you did have only three months to live, maybe it would become clear that there is something you’d like to say, do, or accomplish before the end. Is there any change you would like to make? If so, why not do it now? What are you waiting for? And that’s not a rhetorical question. What are you waiting for?

Dr. John Izzo interviewed hundreds of people in the later stages of life to see what insights and wisdom they could offer, and what regrets they had. His findings are summarized in his book and DVD called “The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die.” A common regret that people have could be summed up as, “I wish I had reflected more. I wish I had questioned myself more often about whether a task was genuinely important or just busywork.”

Another principle I got from this book is that people don’t regret when they failed. What people do regret is not taking chances at all. They regret the actions they didn’t do, and the risks they didn’t take. People regret playing it safe more than failing.

So I ask you now, “What risks do you have yet to take?” And, for the most part, I don’t mean physical risks, like skydiving or bungee jumping, although these might be important to some people. I’m thinking more of emotional risks: the risk to apologize to your son or daughter, the risk to be more vulnerable and share your innermost self more fully, the risk to follow your heart even if your actions may not be accepted by others, the risk to share your greatest gifts, the risk to donate the red turtleneck sweater that you know you’ll never wear again.

So, coming back to keeping the perspective in organizing, I recommend, as you are making decisions about what should stay and what should go, ask yourself, “If I knew I had one year to live, would I really want to keep this?” I know that one year is longer than the three months I talked about previously, but a time period of one year means you’ll live through all four seasons, so that needn’t be a factor in the decision. Ask yourself, “If I had a limited amount of time, how important is this thing, when compared with all the other stuff that I have and all the activities I could do with that time?”

Don’t pretend you will live forever, because those who do tend to not use their time very effectively. In reality, we all have limited time — we just don’t know how much we have. So what matters is that we live fully, that we live in the present, and that we always keep in touch with what is truly important in our lives.

In my opinion, the best way to do this is to imagine that you only have a short time to live. A short time to do all the activities, to read all the books, to listen to all the podcasts, to wear all the clothes, to paint all the paintings, to do all the projects, to make all the phone calls, to hike all the trails, to give all the gifts, to play with all the grandchildren, to feel all the feelings, to connect with people, to find meaning, and ultimately, to love. If you live every day, week, and month as if it may be your last, you will be really clear about what’s important, and when the end really does arrive, you will have no regrets. And I believe that the deepest, most profound level, that’s what we all want, to live a life without regrets, a life of meaning and value.

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