Mid-life reflections on loving life

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Life is precious yet I don't treasure it enough. Why do I take each day for granted?

In June last year, a friend of mine fell ill.

The news came as a shock to everyone. He was about the last person you'd expect to be unwell because he's always been strong and athletic.

Over the past eight months, we have all been praying for him. We get updates on how he is from his wife via a Facebook community page a schoolmate started.

I've visited him a few times. The most recent was over the Chinese New Year when H and I - we were all in junior college together - dropped by.

He was seated and not in pain, could speak a bit and was eating, which we were very thankful for. His wife and two teenage children were there. We took photographs to remember the day.

It's been a painful period, most of all for his family.

It has also been sobering for me.

Every time I think about him or after visiting him, my throat feels tight and my heart is heavy.

How I wish things were different.

How I wish he were well.

How I wish he were like before, living a normal life with plans for his future and his family's future, us meeting once or twice a year for a meal to catch up.

I wish I could turn back the clock or just somehow make things okay for them.

But I can't, of course.

Thinking about the situation he's in, I also wonder: Given that life is so precious and precarious, why don't we appreciate it more?

Why don't we love it more, cherish it more, savour it more? Before it's too late and you find yourself sick or suddenly staring death in the eye when an accident strikes?

I speak for myself, of course.

I take my life for granted.

One day unfurls unthinkingly into the next and then the next and here we are, already in March 2015.

But where have all the days gone? And did I treasure every one the way I should have? Made full use of it? Celebrated it? Lived in the moment? Be the best person I can be?

Or did I waste each day with too many negative thoughts and devalue each with mindless execution of tasks at hand?

The thing about growing older is you begin to realise you no longer have a limitless supply of days ahead of you to fritter away.

I'm at the stage where I have more years behind than ahead of me.

It's a thought that frightens me. So little time, so many things to do, yet am I doing them? Actually, do I even honestly know what I want to do?

When was the last time I really appreciated being alive, appreciated my family and friends or made a positive difference to anything or anyone?

Do I need to be facing death before I am thankful for being alive?

I'm not, by nature, a joyful person. You know, one of those people who shine with inner peace and contentment, whose hearts can brim with gratitude for everything from a sunset to a loaf of bread. (My sister, though, is one of those positive types.)

My mind is always filled with gloomy thoughts and I prefer to look at the bleaker side of things.

It's a defence mechanism based on a belief that if I allow myself to be too happy or to bask in good fortune, they will be taken away from me.

Better not tempt fate. Keep clear of hubris. Stay dark and under the radar.

Which is stupid, really, because this approach to life makes me a generally downbeat person, which can't be healthy for me. It also means I don't bring much joy to those around me.

My friend's illness has made me wonder if it isn't time I lived my life more meaningfully. Question is, how?

While Googling this topic, I came across a powerful account of how someone discovered the meaning of life through a near-death experience.

In January 2009, Ric Elias, an American entrepreneur, was in a US Airways plane when it crash-landed in New York's Hudson River after a flock of birds caused both engines to fail. He and 154 others on board survived.

In a much-viewed TED talk titled 3 Things I Learnt While My Plane Crashed, Elias said that the first thing he realised when the plane was going down was that "it all changes in an instant".

"We have this bucket list, we have these things we want to do in life and I thought about all the people I wanted to reach out to that I didn't, all the fences I wanted to mend, all the experiences I wanted to have and I never did," he said.

"As I thought about that later on, I came up with a saying, which is, 'I collect bad wines.' Because if the wine is ready and the person is there, I'm opening it. I no longer want to postpone anything in life. And that urgency, that purpose, has really changed my life."

The second thing he learnt was that the one big regret he had when faced with death was "the time I wasted on things that did not matter with people that matter".

He resolved to release the negative energy in his life and build better relationships. "I no longer try to be right; I choose to be happy."

As he faced impending death, a feeling of great sadness came over him.

The third thing he realised was that if he had just one wish in his life, it was to see his kids grow up. "Above all, above all, the only goal I have in life is to be a good dad."

We all have different definitions of how to live a good life.

For Elias, it was to be a great dad. For others, it might be to be a good spouse, partner, daughter, son, friend. I'd wager, though, that few would say a life well lived was one that centred on having a lot of material possessions.

When I look at my friend and his family, what strikes me is the fierce love they have for one another.

Fate has dealt them a cruel blow with the illness, but through it all, their love shines through and has made the pain a little more bearable.

That, for me, is the ultimate meaning of life.

If you have loved and were loved, then you have had a life that has been well lived.

It is an important reminder.

Amid the bustle of daily life, it is so easy to be impatient with those who matter and to take them for granted.

If there's anything I must do to live a more purposeful life, it is to pause and to make sure that this doesn't happen.

sumiko@sph.com.sg

Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan