What I learned from a dying friend.
On vacation at the beach with my family, we decided to take a stroll through an antique store. We do this ritual every year around the fourth of July, so I have seen most of the items in this shop over the last several years. Nothing new to me, but I indulge my curiosity just the same.
Browsing the same cubbies I always do hoping to score a relic of the past that I can’t live without, I stumbled upon a bronze plaque. It looked like it came off of a memorial or a grave of some sort. It had Chinese characters and the words, “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think” etched onto it.
The words of this Chinese proverb turned international hit song struck me. I am in my mid-thirties now, young by some standards, but nearing elderly if you ask an adolescent. Surely though, I have many more years ahead than behind, so why should I be concerned? Ah, but it is later than I think.
Life is Fleeting
Within a year, I lost a friend who was 31 to cancer. Another young friend, 18 and getting ready to do a triathlon, was hit while cycling with her mother. The sad reality is that we only get this one shot at life and it is a short one.
Seneca, one of the big three Stoics, wrote on the brevity of life. He said, “You must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.” A stream that will not always flow. That is a certainty we often fear facing.
Making the Best of Our Time
The question is what are we to do with our time while it is yet in our hands? A longtime training partner and friend of mine was diagnosed with ALS in 2018. At one point in our lives, we talked about how to fight human opponents. During his last few months, he taught me how to fight the frailty of a fleeting life. In a post just before he passed away, he offered a reflection on things we can do to make the best of our time:
- Take that walk on the beach. Wheelchairs don’t roll well in the sand!
- Hug your family. When your arms don’t work anymore, take advantage of lifting your hands and worship! I really miss this.
- Eat that extra piece of cheesecake. Nobody really cared what you looked like anyway… lol
- Keep your words sweet. And forgive often.
- Call in sick to work every once in a while. When you’re laying on your deathbed, nobody ever says they wish they’d spent more time at work!
- Go outside and pet your dog. I think you appreciate that.
- Visit someone in the hospital or the nursing home. Even the shut-ins. This is a big one for me
- Don’t make a big deal about small things.
- Don’t waste time! It’s something you cannot buy back.
- Do good things people will remember you for. Not problems you caused.
I often get asked why I continue to put my body through hell in the martial arts arena. It’s because I enjoy it and I may not make it to retirement age. I don’t want to get old and have nothing to look back on with a sense of accomplishment. There is no sense in having wrinkles without a few scars to prove you lived.
I will leave you with another of Seneca’s thoughts on the matter: “Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.” Remember to enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.
*Roy Cobb, my longtime training partner and friend, passed away November 14, 2018. Go rest high on that mountain, my friend.