How do we measure the quality of our lives? Numbers amassed in a bank account? Our portfolio of real estate, as if we were playing a real-time game of Monopoly? The places we shop for clothes? The car we drive? The neighborhood in which we live?
Perhaps we measure the quality of life by the number of degrees, licenses and credentials we hang on our wall. Our GPA. The perceived importance of our work. The keys we carry in our pocket. The security codes with which we’ve been entrusted. How it is we simply can’t be away from our cell phone or our computer for very long. My, my, but aren’t we so important.
Or maybe “hip” and “cool” is how we measure the quality of life. It’s the company we keep. We hang with the right people. The right crowds. We drop the right names. We’re seen in the right places. We’re conversant with the right movies, the plot line of a hit television series, the cutting edge lingo, the bitchinest technologies.
Or maybe we measure the quality of our lives by the quality of our relationships. We are loved. Genuinely regarded and cherished. In turn do we love — well and often. We value and practice loyalty, fidelity, respect, accountability. We are filthy rich in friends.
Many measures. Many choices. Any number of ways to answer whether we are living the lives we most respect and value. But there is one measure directing my life more and more often these days. It is becoming my most constant and trusted counsel as I make decisions day-to-day about my actions, my priorities and my relationships.
I surprise myself these days with the sheer frequency of times I chart my course by thinking or saying, “OK, when I’m dying in hospice …”
And that of course makes a huge presumptive leap: namely, that I will be granted the gift and opportunity to grow old and die in hospice. But nonetheless, at 51, Death is my chief adviser and guide as I decide what direction to point my feet. Death offers me a swift, uncensored judgment regarding what really matters, what no longer matters, and an embarrassingly long list of things that never mattered.
Gotta tell you that last list just leaves me shaking my head.
I recently explained to a friend why I didn’t have time to dally in a particular relationship: “because I’m gonna be really old and fragile soon, and dead right after that.”
“Isn’t that kind of a depressing way of looking at life?” she protested.
“Funny,” I said. “I was going for humble, wise and inspired.”
No. Not the least bit depressing. Depressing is living ever-cautiously, ever-carefully, ever-piously, making sure never to fail, making sure that no one has a complete picture of you, setting up your lifetime so that you never have to entrust your heart to anyone.
Making sure that no one ever hurts you. Making sure no one can.
Depressing is the endless self-massaging rehearsal of why it is that I am forced to settle. Why others, sure, they can be happy. And I would be happy if I were as lucky as they … but, let me recite (again) why I am precluded from choosing my deepest happiness.
I’m reading my youngest “The Velveteen Rabbit”: It is a story about death. About how love transforms us. Crucifies us.
“Weeks passed, and the little Rabbit grew very old and shabby, but the Boy loved him just as much. He loved him so hard that he loved all his whiskers off, and the pink lining to his ears turned grey, and his brown spots faded. He even began to lose shape, and he scarcely looked like a rabbit any more, except to the Boy. To him he was always beautiful, and that was all the little Rabbit cared about. He didn’t mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him Real, and when you are Real shabbiness doesn’t matter.”
Depressing is lying in hospice knowing that you never gave yourself the chance to “become real,” because you decided never to trust anyone to really, truly love you.
When I’m dying in hospice, I very much don’t want to say, “Wow, I’m so proud to tell you that I spent the last 84 years being certain, and safe, and cautious, and careful.”
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.