Almost two years ago I found myself in a bad place.
After practicing law for 16 years I had come to the conclusion that chasing a dream is a wonderful thing, but it has to be your dream, not someone else's. My family was healthy and happy but my ennui was palpable: I knew my life needed to change but I was paralyzed. Where to start, and how? How do you shift from years of doing one thing to beginning another, especially when you don't even know what you want to do?
During this period I would find myself curled up in bed, poring over the newspaper, looking for a sign somewhere in those pages. I imagined an article about a successful company could lead me to knock on their door and get a job or an inspirational piece about a wildly triumphant entrepreneur might move me to invent the next great something.
Yeah, that didn't happen.
Day after day the paper was filled with bad news about the economy and starting over at the age of 40-I'd-rather-not-say was starting to look more and more like a very bad idea. Until, that is, the day I focused on the obituaries.
The Dead Have Answers
"I see dead people!" I exclaimed to my husband, who gave me his usual look of concern before gently taking the paper out of my hands.
"There, there," he cajoled, "things aren't over for you yet. You have a bright future ahead of you doing...well...something. You'll be fine."
He didn't realize my sudden fascination for the death notices was not a sign I was marinating in my malcontent but rather the birth of my process for determining exactly what I wanted to do, why, and how.
As I bolted up in bed that morning I had a light in my eyes my husband hadn't seen for quite some time.
"I'm writing my obituary today," I announced with glee.
"Is there something you haven't told me?" he queried with a worried voice.
I didn't answer him because I had already leapt out of bed and danced into my office where I began tapping away at my final chapter, so to speak. Or is it an epilogue? No matter.
That morning I wrote my obituary, but not the white-washed version most of us will be remembered with when we die. Instead, I put it all out there: the good and the bad; the boring and the dangerous. Those paragraphs encompassed my life from birth until that day. I had much of which I could be proud. I had much of which I could be ashamed. But the most glaring element of this autobiographical life summary was not the words on the page but those that were not.
There are No Do-Overs, but There Are Start-Overs.
Changing the past is impossible. Believe me, I've tried. Whatever your obituary says as of this moment will remain whether you like it or not; whether you choose to trumpet it or secret it away. No eraser or delete button can help you with what has been said and done. Ah, but those next paragraphs!
Those exquisite blank lines are more beautiful than Shakespeare's most perfect prose: they represent your incalculable potential. Limited only by your imagination, dedication, and work ethic, your future can be so much more than to what you may currently be resigned.
George Bernard Shaw wrote: Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.
Isn't that such a stunning simple truth?
What I saw staring back at me when I completed my obituary was an extraordinary lack of the following:
- community service
- creative output
- aggressive self-challenging
- professional satisfaction
Rather than gaze upon my necrology as evidence of a life poorly-lived, I transformed it into a road map to my future life: an authentic existence of personal fulfillment, service to others, and stretching myself beyond boundaries previous unimaginable. Later I wrote the rest of the story: my obituary as I would like it to be when I finally shuffle off this mortal coil. Identifying the holes in my life led me to understand what would fill them.
Write Your Obituary. Then Write it Again.
If you find yourself unhappy, unsatisfied, unappreciated, unloved, and just plain bored, give this exercise a chance. If you're terribly busy I'll allow bullet points to serve in the place of full sentences, but please see me after class to discuss time management.
Write your obit today. Take a good look at it and put it away. Examine it again tomorrow. What's missing? Now get to work. Rewrite your obituary to include all those attainable and meaningful elements your life is lacking and use this new document as a road map to the rest of your life.
What's stopping you? Isn't writing the next chapter inherently preferable to accepting that your unhappy present is doomed to age into an unhappy future?
What are you waiting for?
Oh wait, you may be waiting for this blog to end so you can get going. Carry on!