Priority One is probably to keep breathing. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would agree with that one. Beyond those that ensure survival, priorities can be rather slippery and elusive and often not at all clear. Priorities, if held firmly, can keep order in our lives. But if held too tightly, when situations change, priorities can get in the way, can make life more of a struggle, because they lose their original purpose, become habit for the sake of habit. That seems simple enough, but there’s a grey area where it’s hard to know if a situation rises to a level that warrants the effort of changing priorities. To complicate the whole confounding issue, priorities have a lot to do with values, so if more than one person is involved, which is nearly always the case, it can become a real and perplexing conundrum.
At times, it’s difficult to figure out the difference between a want and a need: how important is this? Does the original purpose of the priority still exist? It’s a life skill to discern the difference. Adaptation is a life skill, one that is particularly difficult, because usually, people will change only when the pain of not changing, becomes far greater than the pain and effort of change itself. Hospice patients and their families live in a world of no-nonsense, nitty-gritty clarity which makes priorities agonizingly clear. When I worked with hospice families, I often found myself feeling ridiculous, when I compared the considerable, psychological wrestling on my part to decide which priority would win. Some of my own inner struggles were starkly trivial, indeed nearly frivolous: do I have my hair refoiled and cut, or buy that new pair of shoes? Those hospice families have helped me evaluate my ever-changing priorities, and I often think of what they taught me about what’s really a need, and what’s just a want, what’s ultimately important, and what’s not.
I’ve never heard a hospice patient say, “I wish I had worked more. I wish I’d put in more overtime.” For most of us, work is important. It allows us to buy things and do fun things. It keeps a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs, it puts food in our stomachs and gas in our car. But work can be over-weighted, and then we become what they used to call a workaholic: working for work’s sake, or because we’re like pendulums in a rhythm, and we forget to quit working and go home. Or work can become an avoidance behavior: working because we don’t want to go home. It can become a diversion from the other, real stuff in our life, stuff that we really don’t want to confront or risk or deal with.
I’ve never heard a hospice patient say, “I wish I’d dieted more,” but I have heard, “I wish I’d eaten more pasta and ice cream”. I’m not saying stuff yourself anytime, all the time, every meal, eat constantly and order the from the grease-fried super size page of the menu; but treat yourself once in a while. Being a size “00″ isn’t going to matter when you’re dead. I’ve never heard anyone mention body size in a eulogy, when recalling and sharing the most memorable things, those things that made that person who they were.
I’ve never heard a hospice patient say, “I wish I’d had a 4.0 GPA when I graduated.”
I’ve never heard a hospice patient say, “I wish I’d spent more time at the hair dresser and had more facials,” but, I have heard, “I wish I’d worn my hair the way I really liked it, instead of trying to please someone else.” So, if you want to shave your head, go shave it. It might be surprising, even delightful, to see the shape of your head for the first time since infancy. And it would definitely get you some attention!
I’ve never heard a hospice patient say, “I wish I’d spent more time cleaning my house,” but, I have heard, “I wish I’d made more time to cook, because I really, really enjoyed that.” So cook and bake to your heart’s content, if that makes you happy. Take a Thai cooking class, or just try out a new recipe. If everybody else wants hamburgers, and you’d really like Phad Thai Noodles, make a pile for yourself and enjoy. Forget the windows and toilets and floors and laundry; I guarantee you they won’t go anywhere. And you’ll get to treat yourself to something you enjoy doing.
I’ve never heard a hospice patient say, “I wish I’d bought more stuff,” but I have heard, “I wish we’d done the travelling we always talked about doing.” It might not be an around-the-world cruise, but what about the one, two or three-day getaways? What about a drive up the road for a picnic, or just a day in the country or at the beach? We have a grove of scraggly alders around the corner from our house, hardly more than tall weeds, and I used to joke with my husband, “We could hide away in there someday and have a picnic! We could pretend we’re in the forest!” It wouldn’t have been “travel”, but it would have changed our routine.
I’ve never heard a hospice patient say, “I wish I hadn’t taken any chances,” but, I have heard, “I wonder what would have happened if I’d tried this or that, I wish I’d taken more risks.” So, go for it, if you can. Take that chance. See what might happen. You won’t be saying “I wonder what if . . . “, at the end of your life. Take a painting or drawing class, or buy some paper and charcoal pencils; maybe you’re good, and it’d be fun! You can never know where a hobby might lead. Enjoyment for the sake of enjoyment, or perhaps an avocation, even a new vocation!
I’ve never heard a hospice patient say, “I’m glad I did what everybody else thought I should do,” but, I have heard, “I wish I’d followed my heart.” Work consumes a huge amount of our allotted time in this life, and what a pity to spend it doing what you hate, unless it’s unavoidable. So your parents wanted to you be a lawyer, and you went into law, but do you like it? Does it bring passion and satisfaction to your life? Is there something else that you’ve always wanted to try, maybe even as an avocation? Maybe you could test it out, play at it. Find some time to dabble.
I’ve never heard a hospice patient say, “I wish I’d talked more,” or “I wish I’d held my thoughts and feelings in more”; but, I have heard, “I wish I’d listened more,” and “I wish I’d done more storytelling with my children and grandchildren. I wish I’d had the courage to say what I really thought.” It’s never too late to begin to listen. Ask your children or grandchildren to make up a story and share it with you; it could be amazing! It’s never too late to begin storytelling. A family member may recall those things you’ve shared and begin a family tradition or rituals built around those stories. Lessons learned and passed on to children can begin with storytelling, then passed down through generations. Parents’ mistakes need not be repeated, the lessons need not be relearned, if shared with our children and grandchildren.
I’ve never heard a hospice patient say, “I wish I’d spent more time indoors watching television and playing games on the computer,” but, I have heard, “I wish I’d spent more time enjoying the outdoors, playing, or just sitting and enjoying the sunset”. Lethargy and boredom can be numbing. Isolation from other people, limiting and lonely. We miss so much if we hide away from others, if we close ourselves off from contact with nature. Can you imagine living an entire life, never watching a sunset or sunrise? Can you imagine never building a snowman, or watching children build one? Never watching the snow fall? Never watching a storm, storm, or the rain pour in torrents? Run outside on a warmish, rainy, spring day, get wet, stomp through mud puddles, close your eyes, open your mouth and let the water run down your face. You will dry. Lay down in the snow and make snow angels. Notice the sensations, feel the world around you.
I’ve never heard a hospice patient say, “I wish I’d been a hermit. I wish I hadn’t known so many people.” Get curious about what makes a person who they are, where they came from, why do they think the way they do? Get someone talking about themselves, and listen. It can be fascinating. With billions of people in the world, it’s mind-boggling to think that each person is unique: how can there be that many different personalities?
I’ve never heard a hospice patient say, “I wish I’d been more serious. I wish I hadn’t laughed so much.” There’s a time to be serious. But, there’s also time for levity, for humor, for telling stories on oneself. The most embarrassing moments can, in time, become the most entertaining things to tell.
So, remember, priority one is always to keep breathing. But next to that, is passion. Listen to it, follow it, do it. It’s the best way I know of to live a life fulfilled.
©Janet Mitchell, October 2011