Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
Paul Bowles- The Sheltering Sky
Ain’t it funny how time slips away
Many of the posts I write about discuss mindful living, seizing the day, living life to the fullest, etc. Even still, I can be a pretty lazy guy sometimes, and find myself getting captivated by many absurd distractions, including watching hours of mindless TV. Sometimes I actually learn something though, and the other day while watching the show Lost, I was greeted with a profound life lesson that I have been thinking about ever since.
On the show, one of the leading characters named Desmond decides to deviate from the successful life he has built for himself, and concentrate on helping his friends reconnect with people he knew they were meant to be with. This course of action represents a revelation, as he has had an epiphany about what is important and life and what is not, and he’s decided to do things a little differently this time. One particular scene shows a huge smile splash across his face as he takes it all in and begins to shed the remnants of his former constrictive life.
This show was fiction, I knew that, and not only fiction but kind of crazy fiction. Still, I couldn’t shake the idea of how liberating it would be to shred some of my own dead skin. For a non-worrier, I had been downright neurotic for the last few weeks, and decided to actually sit down and make a list of the things that I was worrying about that would realistically matter to me in one year’s time. Know what? I couldn’t think of any, and shortly afterwards had my own big smile on my face as I freed myself from some of my own pesky skin.
My next move was to head to downtown Chicago and sit in Daley square and just watch people. It was an exercise I had been doing since I first moved here as a wide-eyed kid back in 1996. The task was simple. Watch people, really watch people and find something funny about their lives. Not in any mean-spirited way, but simply as a lesson in noticing the little moments of comedy in life that people perhaps don’t even realize about themselves. I’ve been doing it for years, and when I get too rushed or too serious, or simply too busy with my life, I slow down, hop on a train and repeat this exercise. I almost always fill up a substantial portion of my notebook jotting things down.
What occurs to me in these moments is that time is the most important thing we have. All of the other blessings in our life are contingent on having time. Making time is the fuel that feeds our relationships, kindles our sense of romance, and cements the bond that makes a family. Yet strangely we often don’t appreciate time until it’s gone. Who among us hasn’t complained and kvetched through a situation only to look back on it with nostalgia and longing only after it rests firmly in our rear view mirror? My guess is almost all of us.
A clue perhaps as to how to use our time wisely comes from Richard Moss, who said, “the greatest gift you can give another is the purity of our attention.” This speaks not only to spending time with someone, but actually spending this time in a way that truly demonstrates that we feel privileged to have this person in our life. To spend time really listening instead of waiting for our turns to talk. Anyone who has ever struggled in a relationship is I’m sure familiar with the difference. We often fail to realize that we too fail to listen, and even after working for several years as a therapist where it is the bread and butter of my profession, I find myself butting in on people all the time.
Beyond our relationships, I think there is a further lesson in giving the everyday moments of life the purity of our attention. Having spent time with a lot of comedians, I’m convinced that the best of them are funny because they have become amazingly adept at noticing the absurdity and comic relief every moment of life has the potential to provide. Spend a little time looking around a dollar store, or a zoo, or a doctor’s office, or virtually any other place you could name, and I guarantee you that if you really look closely you will find something amusing by taking a time out from your worries and starting to look around. That’s been my secret, and I suspect a secret for a lot of successful people who have made a career out of comedy.
This lesson came full circle for me when I was enjoying myself recently at one of Chicago’s glorious summer festivals on a Sunday afternoon. It had been a long weekend, and I had really just come to watch the music, have a couple of beers, and wind the weekend down as peacefully as I could.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the office. The band that day was playing a lot of cover music from the 80’s, and soon, like a frustrated lounge singer, my hips began moving back and forth. A beer later I was belting out a Tiffany song and doing the Roger Rabbit and generally making an ass out of myself. Soon I was doing the robot, the fishing pole, the shopping cart, and on and on. Because I was by myself I’m sure this looked incredibly odd, and as the show wrapped up I wiped the sweat off my head and prepared for the short bike ride home.
A moment later I felt a tap on my shoulder, and as I turned around I saw a young couple standing there with big smiles on their faces.
“Hey, just wanted you to know that we had the best time watching you tonight,” she went on. "It’s been a long time since either of us have seen those sweet 80’s dance moves, and we just wanted to say you kind of made our night.”
It was a sledgehammer moment for me. I realized that for all the time I spent watching and looking for the comedic moments in life, that I had become the subject of my own exercise. It was a wonderful reminder that life is not a passive affair, and that, although I strive for mindfulness and awareness, a big part of success in this life is about getting in the ring. Those people made my day, and I was humbled to learn that I had also made theirs. Laughter at its best is a pay it forward kind of exercise, and it’s a lesson I hope I will continue to remember.