Learning How to Live

The simple concept I am about to share with you has taken me most of my adult life to realize and is one of the key ingredients in living a balanced fulfilling life.

Dereck at I Will Not Die wrote a piece (Playgrounds in the Night) that will move you. When you read it, it will leave you with a sense of urgency to live now. It will make you question every decision you make, make you fight your distractions, and push you to live right now.

Dereck is right and I encourage you to live right now, while you still have the time.

But it is only half-the story. Life is never clean. It’s messy and mysterious.

Like a lot of you, I struggle living in the now. I think I know why. Let me explain with a story.

There was a boy I once knew that never wanted the day to end. He lived in the moment and for the moment. Eating was a nuisance, going potty a waste of time, getting dressed a distraction. He had important things to do. He had dragons to slay, legions to lead into battle, fortresses to build, treasure to find, and damsels to save.

And when he wasn’t in his imagination, he had worms to eat, bikes to jump, ropes to swing from, rocks to throw, firecrackers to light, lawn darts to toss, books to read, games to play, and movies to watch.

He hated plans and loved spontaneity. He did everything he could now because tomorrow never came, it was always now.

He avoided schedules and plans because they felt like prisons.

As he grew older, he went to parties, he smoked dope, he played music, chased girls, and wrote poetry. It was all enormous fun. But he never made plans for his future. He lived for the moment, no worries, life to it’s fullest.

He didn’t expect to live past 18, but it came and it went. Then he didn’t expect to live past 21. But it too came and it went.

As time went on, he had fewer and fewer friends. Some went to prison, others to treatment, some got married, others to school, some even died. He kept living for the moment, but soon he found himself alone. Everyone had either made plans and moved on or disappeared.

At 30 years old, he had no money, no house, no friends, no marriage, no kids, no education, no job, no business. He spent 30 years living in the now and now the present wasn’t so fun. His health was failing and so was his sanity.

That’s when he realized his mistake…

It is important to answer this question:

How would I live if I was sure I was going to die tomorrow?

But it is equally important to ask yourself this one:

How would I live if I was sure I’d live a 100 more years?

There is a difference between living in the present and living like there is no tomorrow. Failing to think about your future is irresponsible to yourself and your loved ones. If you want something tomorrow, sometimes, you have to do something you don’t want to do today. You can live in the present moment, while choosing to use your present moment to make plans for your future. In reality there are no other moments than this one, right here, right now. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it to plan your future and learn from your past.

You can do your own thing, but remember, you will reap the consequences of your choices. There is no avoiding them.

While it is possible I may die today, I am planning to live past 100. Sometimes I tell my kids ‘no’ when they ask to go to the park. If I knew I was going to die tomorrow we’d go to the park. But today I choose to work on my career, my business, my writing, my health, my finances, as well as my marriage and my children. No one thing can have my focused attention all the time. Sometimes I have to drop work and help a family member, sometimes I say no to my family because there is work to be done. My plans are longer than 1 day or 1 week.

If you are overly focused on the long-term you’ll miss the present and you’ll die waiting to arrive.

However, if you are overly focused on the present without thought for your future, and you happen to live another 60 years, you may not like where you end up. You need to watch where you are going or you might end up lost, in the ditch, or crushed in a head on collision.

Yes, if I knew I was going to die next week, I’d live the next 7 days very differently. But if I chose to live that way all the time, life would get strange. Life wouldn’t be as fun without long-term goals and successes.

The exact date and time of your demise is a mystery, and that makes life far more interesting. It forces you to take calculated risks with your most precious commodity – time.

I came to understand this when I realized…
When I choose to do something right now, I am forgoing every other possibility. To read this post, you gave up everything else you could have been doing with that time. I hope I left you with something you can use.

There is no right or wrong answer, there is only what is right for you. Don’t let anyone choose for you, but remember to choose intelligently.

11 thoughts on “Learning How to Live”

  1. I was lucky enough to figure that out when I was a kid. My solution is my basic philosophy:

    Stay curious and open to life. No matter what happens keep learning and growing. Find what you love to do and find a way to share it with others.

    If you find work you love, keep learning and growing and enjoy the process… then you can live in the moment and prepare for the future at the same time. It’s a natural consequence.

  2. What a thought provoking story, so much emphasis is placed on living for the now that people tend to forget that the things you do now is what will create your future. Living now, does not mean the constant search for pleasure, it means planning responsibly and setting aside time for fun. Life is truly not all fun and games. You simply have to work too.

    Thanks, incredible answers from unexpected places…

    -Tabs

  3. What’s so remarkable about what you’ve said here is the degree to which balance in the face of absence of absolute knowledge plays the greatest role in our decision making. In other words, if we knew just how long we would live, we’d make much more careful decisions.

    What’s also highly interesting is that I wrote the story with one extreme view in mind, and you noticed. In fact, it was deliberate that he only made his final choice once he knew, quite clearly, the degree to which he was finite. He began by first saying “no.”

    What you’ve carefully deconstructed here is what I was silent about, which was, the decision he made in the end, which is the decision the story seems to be saying must be made, is an impossible decision because none of us, until we are very old, can know that we can die at any moment.

    Incidentally, we could think of it as a continuum, one where we each pick our own place. In fact, my first discussion with you was way back when I mistakenly thought you were far off to one end instead of somewhere closer to the middle; which makes all of this even more interesting because it shows the degree to which both you and I try to strike a balance between the poles.

    Thanks for the mention Steve.

  4. @Jean, I’ve learned almost everything the hard way. Sad but true. I can be a stubborn SOB. But that why I have this blog. To learn and to share. Having readers like you make it all worth it. Depression can teach you things, if you survive it. It is a lot like drug addiction or alcoholism or war, no one wants it, but if you get it and make it out the other side, whew! You sure learn a lot.

    @Dereck,
    I don’t recall my first discussion with you. What was it about? I like exploring the edges and I know you do too. I blog because I don’t want to do it alone. I love and hate the middle because some people use the middle as some safety zone and they never venture out, while I know nothing is black and white. Moderation bores me, I have to find out what’s out there, even if it hurts.

    P.S. I’m grateful to have readers as intelligent and thoughtful as you guys. Thanks for hanging around.

  5. That’s a very compelling inversion of the usual mantra, Live For Today.

    The balance between two competing needs is hard to achieve, but you’ve l;aid out an excellent framework for examining the question. Thanks, and have a good weekend.

  6. Dereck,
    You write, “… none of us, until we are very old, can know that we can die at any moment.” That hasn’t been my experience. Last September in Living Every, Every Minute I wrote about seeing Thorton Wilder’s Our Town on TV when I was 12 years old and the profound effect it made on me. It’s why I blog:

    And that, I think, is blogging at its best…honoring the things we love by writing about them and sharing them with others. Writing helps us wake up to those precious moments that go by all too fast.

    Steve,
    You’re a man after my own heart. I, too, am interesting in the learning and sharing, not in the statistics I can generate. Thanks!

  7. First discussion was here.

    As to this:

    I love and hate the middle because some people use the middle as some safety zone and they never venture out, while I know nothing is black and white. Moderation bores me, I have to find out what’s out there, even if it hurts.

    This is epic.

  8. After reading this entry and the story that you linked to, I’m wondering whether becoming and then being a parent makes one live more for more than just the present. I’ve been a father for nearly six years and who I am now is a changed version of who I was. It may be a cliche – but my sons have helped and continue to help me the world through fresh eyes.

    Finally, in my eyes one has to live in the present and for the future and leave the past behind as a series of stops on life’s journey.

  9. Two months later this is still a strong message.
    My hit: when a child asks you for time and attention, this is not just a living in the moment opportunity. Giving supportive attention to a child is a high vlue for all of us. So, we work that into the prioritization as we make our decision.

    If I don’t give the loving attention now, how shall I do it later? is a good question to ask when you cannot leave your task at hand.

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