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65. How to Really Live

A number of years ago I worked with a woman called Angela. One day she came into work, 'I've had the most traumatic weekend,' she said, 'I suddenly realized that one day I am going to die'. I must have looked unimpressed because she said, 'no, really, really die!' Sometimes it hits you, mostly it doesn't. Mostly we live our lives as if we're going to live forever, and while this is undoubtedly a useful mechanism that stops us from worrying about death all the time, our lives may actually be the poorer for it. This week's tip explores how a greater appreciation of our mortality might actually improve our lives. On the BBC's Horizon programme recently they reported a piece of research on the rose-tinted spectacle effect. Subjects were asked to answer a series of questions such as, 'In your lifetime how likely are you to get cancer?', and 'How likely are you to break a bone?' Once they had guessed they would be given the right answer. On the whole people underestimated their risk. For example, our lifetime risk of cancer is about 30%, whereas most of the subjects estimated their risk as 20% or less. Even if they knew what the risk was for the general population, they didn't seem to think it applied to them. The same people were then asked the same series of questions again. For the questions where they had overestimated their risk, most people dropped their prediction to the right kind of level. For the questions where they had underestimated their risk, they still underestimated their risk. If unrealistic optimism is an innate protective mechanism it is obviously a very good one! And yet, we often hear from people who know unequivocally that they are dying, that life becomes more vibrant, more precious, when they know that it is limited. The late playwright Dennis Potter, for example, was interviewed some ten days before his death. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKErIO3HqHo Here are some of the things he said: 'I realize now that life can only be defined in the present tense - it is now. Now-ness has become so vivid to me that I'm almost serene, I can celebrate life.' He describes the blooming of a plum tree outside his window. 'Instead of saying 'that's nice blossom',' he said, '......to me it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be.' 'The now-ness of everything is absolutely wondrous. If people could see that - the glory of it, the comfort of it, the reassurance.... the fact is that if you see the present tense, boy do you see it, and boy can you celebrate it.' Try this: Imagine this was your last 24 hours. How would you spend it? Would you be more likely to notice the daffodils that dance along the banks of the road where you live? Would you still be too deep in thought to enjoy the glory of the magnolia tree in your neighbour's garden? Would you look more deeply into the eyes of those that you love, and listen more intently? Would you notice the breath as it enters and leaves your body? Would you savour the croissant you have for breakfast, and the taste and temperature of the coffee as it reaches your lips? Would you sink gloriously into a bath, delighting in the feel of the hot water as it touches every inch of your skin? Would you play that computer game again, ruminate over that argument, slump on the sofa and watch something mediocre on television? Or would you pack as many simple but perfect experiences into your day as you possibly could? Remember, you never know when you've only got 24 hours to live. Have a good week! Anita