I fell asleep at the wheel when I was 18 years old, shortly after graduating high school. Friends and I woke up at the wee hours of dawn to go to the Live 8 concert in Philadelphia. After an energetic 95 degree day focused on music and ending poverty, I drove friends home tired and dehydrated from the summer sun. After dropping off my last friend, I woke up at 12:15 AM with the caustic blast of an airbag flying into my face, quickly discovering that I ran into a telephone pole, splitting it in half, the upper portion now dangling from the telephone wire. I immediately called 911. Police came and asked if I had been drinking. “No. You can breathalyze me!” I called out, “I fell asleep!” “It’s just that this is a lot of damage for just having fallen asleep,” the officer retorted. As the ambulance came, I glanced heavenward in prayer, my soul in chaotic communion with God, and made a promise that I would live it right. Not take a breath for granted. I took my heart by the hand in firm grip. “You’re going to be passionate. Keep your complaints to a minimum. And above all, you’re going to take this life, love it, and love others,” I declared to myself, releasing my flexed, pointed finger and gritted teeth. I then proceed to cry, turning my fuming fingers into open palms, and slowly rested my tear-drenched face into them, learning a lesson on self-compassion and how absolutely compulsory it is.
I arrived at the hospital, where my dad met me bedside in an exam room. “I am so sooo sorry,” I apologized, leaning in for a hug. He reached back immediately. “I’m just glad you’re ok; I’m glad you’re ok.” The x-rays showed no broken bones, so with gauze and a pain prescription, I was sent on my way. “I’m sorry to wake you up, Dad. I’m really sorry for doing something so stupid.” “It’s ok; I’m glad you’re ok,” he persisted.
I fell asleep (in my bed this time) and woke up to a raw, scraped chin, fresh tender skin scattered among hardened scab. In the days to follow, I had loving support from friends and family. Two ten-year old girls that I coached came to my house with handmade cards that still hang in my room today. I remember telling them that I was afraid parents wouldn’t trust me driving their kids anymore as a babysitter. “Don’t worry, they’ll still trust you,” their little selves promised me. They gave me hugs and walked back to play at the neighborhood pool. A few days later, my name appeared in our local newspaper under police reports. Ashamed and embarrassed that the whole community could see my recklessness, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of love I received. Family gingerly encouraged me to slow down. To stop doing so much; to simply do what I’m doing, confident that it’s more than enough. I listened. For a little while at least. But over the past 10 years, this experience developed an impulse to “hurry up” and “do more” because I learned that we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow, tonight, or the next hour. I didn’t realize the promise I vowed to myself—to never to live out of step with my values, to always live with passion and bring life into the world—would be a tall order, an impossibly high standard that turned into “I need to do and experience everything as quickly as possible so that I don’t waste time.”
I overextended myself in too many activities the next few years, developed an anxiety and depression disorder, and shamed myself for living in this anxious state when I “should” be living it joyfully to the full. Through therapy and medication, I got much better, but was still lusting after experiencing everything.
This turned into cutting corners trying to breeze through seasons of pain, confusion, and suffering because hey, we could all die tomorrow, right? And if I might die tomorrow, I certainly don’t want to waste today in sadness. So rather than allowing myself to fully experience difficult “wilderness” seasons, I tried to skip that part altogether. But that’s not how growth works, turns out, and no one is exempt from sadness, anger, and pain just because they might die tomorrow.
Sometimes I rushed through conversations so that I could talk to that person, only to rush through that conversation to talk to this person, in hopes of developing rich, meaningful relationships as quickly as possible, wanting to meet everyone on this planet that I possibly could, forgetting that people aren’t penciled in items on a to-do list; we’re chock full of emotions, stories, things to learn and teach each other, and these deep connections take time. And time never seems to be on your side when you’re living like you might die tomorrow. Life never seems long enough when you act like it stops the same minute as your heart, forgetting about all I’ve been taught about life after death. I guess I’m a little scared of it turning out to be fallacy, but I know in my darkest moments that I need this hope of heaven.
The “do more, quicker” mentality caused me to live erratically rather than learning something about patience, about seasons, about the beauty that comes from living the questions, the uncertainties. It caused me to search for answers now, which has some perks to it, but often has downfalls of arriving at wrong conclusions in a harried attempt to maximize time. We can’t know how things will turn out. We don’t need to, either. As Rainer Maria Rilke once said,
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I guess that’s it- that’s where I want to be right now. I want to live the questions, live the uncertainties, live the risks and searchings and yearnings. Live that now. The answers will come in their own timing. We have 24 hours a day and I can loathe that they aren’t enough or I can assert the fact that this is all we have, so enjoy them and be fully present.
The accident that I thought was supposed to teach me about “living life to the full,” I realize 10 years later was actually a lesson about grace, forgiveness, self compassion, to be gentle to myself and others. To learn that “living life to the full” is a fluid experience— sometimes it means pondering the Pleiades, tracing its outlines with your finger toward the sky, feeling the edges of each star from 50 million miles away. Other times it means identifying the thing you’re actually afraid of and conquering it. For me, that fear was wasting time. It meant reminding myself when I felt stuck as though getting nowhere, that I was indeed not wasting my life. It meant giving myself grace when I felt like a let-down, when I was working in a job I hated, stuck in a cycle of anxiety. And other times, living life to the full meant looking up at the sunset no matter the latitude or longitude, and finding it beautiful.
I’m also learning that although we’re not guaranteed tomorrow, there is such a thing as adulthood, and older adulthood, and retirement… so if my things aren’t crossed off my bucketlist by the time I’m 30, that’s ok; in fact that’s great-each of us might have a lifetime of adventures to look forward to, maybe, just maybe…
So may we live today like it could be our last and may we remember that we have a God who has a home for us even when that last day comes.
May we savor sweet conversation, taking our time through each word, hug, tender kiss.
May we realize that we will always want more time in the day, but even on our death bed, our time really hasn’t run out.
“I’ve told my children that when I die, to release balloons in the sky to celebrate that I graduated. For me, death is a graduation.” -Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross