As I lay awake this morning, waiting for the alarm (or the baby) to sound, my wandering mind gradually focused on a single question — "What are you most afraid of?"
I am not afraid of dying. I sincerely believe I am not. What I do fear is dying, without having gotten around to living. Coming to that realization just a few months shy of my 56th birthday seems ridiculous, but it is indeed a hard truth.
I fear that those who survive me will believe I was someone other than who I believe I am. I fear that my wife and children might wonder how much I loved them. I fear never mastering the habits that should have defined my life. I fear never finishing the achievements that should have defined my legacy.
I sometimes see in my older children the same sense of ambivalent ambition that has served me so poorly — the sense that the array of potential avenues for success and fulfillment is so broad that every commitment seems to come with an opportunity cost too heavy to bear.
This paralysis of overwhelming opportunity not only burdens the ability to commit fully to any single pursuit, it also deepens the sense of disappointment and loss when those few, half-hearted commitments we force ourselves to make produce their inevitably half-measured results.
So what do I tell my children about this? What do I tell myself? Sometimes, letting life imitate art is not a half-bad idea. For me, the best moment in the film Shawshank Redemption comes when Tim Robbins offers this observation to Morgan Freeman.
I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really.
Get busy livin', or get busy dyin'.
That simple statement encapsulates the meaning of the entire film for me. It is the full-throated battle cry that shouts down the cacophonous din of every fear of failure we hear in our heads every waking hour of every day.
If I want my survivors to believe I was the man I wanted to be, then I need to be that man for them, while I still have days left in me to do so.
Ensuring that loved ones feel loved starts with saying the words every... single... day. Beyond the words, there are endless opportunities to prove the truth of the words through action, if only we would take the time to imagine those actions, and then follow through.
The work of building the habits that define a life begins with the choice of just one habit. Focus on only one. Make it a reality, and then move on. Building good habits is itself a skill that can only be mastered by doing it — not by thinking about it or worrying about it.
It is far too easy to use the despair of not achieving everything as an excuse to achieve nothing at all. Choose the thing. Do the thing. Stop making excuses. And, for God's sake, stop whining all the time.
It seems strange that we spend so much of our lives trying to lose our fear of dying. All of that energy could be so much better spent figuring out how to stop being so afraid of living.
Yes, this is a smorgasbord of first world problems. But this is the first world, and I prefer facing the problems I have, rather than feeling guilty about the problems I don't have.