Saturday, February 22, 2014

"What Have I Done With My Life?"

Every so often, I get angry or sad and ask myself if I've taken the right course in life. Also, especially as I get older, I'm more conscious that this crazy train of life eventually runs out or track and that choices I've made (some good, others not so good) mean there are things in life I will not accomplish. For example, as a child I wanted to be an astronomer. That's not very likely to happen now. (Not that I wish I'd become one, mind you, but this state of mind I'm describing is definitely 'cup half empty' territory).

Over the past several years, other people have confided similar feelings to me. This was nice to hear, because each time I'd had such thoughts I'd just accuse myself of being a sniveling little crybaby. "Don't sit and whine!" I'd mentally yell. "Put your energy into doing something about it! And if you aren't going to do anything about it, then shut the f*** up!" Once I realized it was pretty common for people to feel this way, I was a lot easier on myself.

But since this is something many people feel, I thought I'd share a trick I invented many years ago for trouncing those feelings. It's (kind of) a Zen thing, because it gets me in touch with reality and pulls me away from a groundless emotional response to whatever bit of real or imagined suffering I'm laboring under. Here's what you do...

  1. Pick seven or more major aspects of your life: relationship, career, education, a long term hobby you have, religious pursuits, travel, coming out process, family status, where you live, etc. Anything that's been a force in your life over the course of many years and/or that impacts how happy/successful you are. Create a column on a piece of paper for each of these items. I then also add a column call 'Life Experiences' (more on that later).
  2. The first row under the 'Major Aspects' row is titled 'Today': Going across the columns, describe where you are today in each major aspect of your life. Write the actuality, not what you plan or wish for or hope to do. Only write what is. Don't write a book; just briefly lay it out in a few words or a sentence. For example, under 'relationship' I might write: "18 years with my partner this August, and we have the right to marry in June". Under 'Life Experiences', write something recent you have done for the first time, an award you just received, a great night with friends last week, a fantastic trip you took...anything special that didn't come to mind for the other columns and that has happened very, very recently.
  3. The second row is titled '1 Year Ago': Do the same thing, but this time think about where you were one year ago today. Timing doesn't have to be exact (this isn't going to be audited by the IRS).
  4. The third row is '5 Years Ago': Same deal. At this stage you may be thinking of other 'Major Aspects' that you forgot to create as columns. Add them! You may also start to reference the earlier rows as guides, creating a 'path' as it were in each column. This is totally fine to do (as long as you keep it real). You may also want to retitle the columns. Again, this is fine.
  5. The fourth row is '10 Years Ago'
  6. The fifth row is '15 Years Ago'
  7. The last row is '20 Years Ago' (although you can go back further if you like, this is probably as far as you need to go for the exercise to work).
Look at this table you've created! Drink it in! Realize how much you have changed, how much you have accomplished, and the great moments you have experienced over the course of your life. Twenty years ago, did you imagine that all this would have happened? After doing this exercise, I was never able to think negatively about the life I'd led again. Sure, I've made mistakes, bad stuff has happened, and I have regrets, but to question whether I've lived my life fully...not a chance!

Now for the final step (and I do this mentally), focus on the amount of change across the rows.  Think about one year into the future, 5 years out, 10, 15, and 20. If you have as much change and experiences ahead of you as you had in the past then, even if you only live another few years before a runaway bus takes you out, there's a lot of amazing things you can't even imagine right now in store for you. 

When I did this part of the exercise, I also reminded myself that - barring any variants on the runaway bus scenario - I probably have another 30 or 40 years to live. My reaction was that, at the end of all this, I'll be so exhausted that I'll be ready to drop dead! It's hard to feel mortality too keenly when you recognize that you have lived your life well and that, even if your remaining time is brief, a lot of great stuff can happen. 

I've done this entire exercise every few years when I'm in that depressed mood. The results always amaze me, uplift me, and recharge me. Hope it helps someone else too.

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