"What will you do with your one wild and precious life?"
“What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” This line from poet Mary Oliver came to mind for me recently when my daughter, age 30, told me about a friend who is dying of stomach cancer. Doctors have tried desperately to save this young father’s life, but yesterday his wife was told that treatments were unsuccessful. Her husband is bleeding internally and is not expected to live more than 48 hours.
When I first heard this news I struggled with a multitude of feelings. First, I imagined what this experience must be like for my daughter’s friends. They were just beginning their marriage—what must it be like to have their lives together come to such an untimely end. Then I thought of my daughter. Her family is a mirror image of theirs—married only two years, with a new baby and all the hopes and dreams that come with new beginnings. The impending death of their friend is making Heather and Craig starkly aware of the fragility of life—just as the loss of someone close does for all of us.
Next I found myself reflecting on the idea of having only 48 hours to live. Most of us, myself included, take the graced gift of life for granted. We tend to deny the reality of death and go blithely along from day to day blinded to the fact that our days are limited. Certainly it would not be wise to obsess about the length of our days. However, we live in a death denying culture. We do everything possible to ignore the reality of death. Often, its only when our denial is stripped away by the loss of someone close that we begin, if only momentarily, to think about the fact that our time on this earth is not limitless and that one day our lives too will come to an end.
“What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” We seldom think about this question. We become absorbed in our daily activities giving little thought to whether or not we’re living a meaningful life. But in the center of loss we may find ourselves asking fundamental questions. “Who am I?” “What do I want out of life?” “What am I doing with the graced gift of life that I’ve been given?” “How can I make my life really count for something?” “How can I live fully, vitally and meaningfully?”
If you had 48 hours to live, and you reviewed your life, would you be satisfied with the way you’ve lived it? Certainly, all of us live with regrets…with things we wish we had done differently. We are not perfect. However, if you were to look over the whole of your life what criteria would you use to evaluate the way you’ve lived? Would your criteria be based on wealth…on power…or on prestige? Would it be based on successful relationships…on a satisfying marriage…or on raising responsible children? Would it be based on living a moral life…on being a good Christian…or on living according to the Ten Commandments? Would it be based on performing acts of kindness…on preserving the environment…or sacrificing your safety and security for the good of others? What criteria would you use to evaluate the way you lived your life?
There is no “one” answer to this question. But one place to begin is with ourselves. Each of us is unique and we have special gifts bestowed upon us by our Maker. Some clues come in a deeper understanding of our uniqueness. Yet discovering that uniqueness is not an easy task. As I look over my life…as I reflect upon the joys and sorrows and what I’ve learned from them…as I think about what gives me pleasure…as I search for what gives me a sense of meaning and fulfillment…as I reflect upon the presence and action of God in my life, I begin to get an image of what leads to a well-lived life for me.
What about you? If you were told you only had 48 hours to live would you be satisfied with the life you’ve lived? If so, what has brought you to this place of fulfillment? And if not, what might you change to make your remaining hours, days, months and years rich in meaning and purpose? I invite you to contemplate this question, to pray with it and to seek answers. Then I invite you to act on those answers. For as Mary Oliver says in her poem, we too must contemplate what we will do with our one wild and precious life.
(Brandon died peacefully with family and friends by his bedside on Thursday evening, August 12, 2004.)
Debbie is a pastoral counselor and spiritual director who meets with people here at St Paul and at Milwaukie Lutheran Church. She can be reached at (503) 558-9400.