American jazz musician and composer, Miles Davis, once said, “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” In a world where many people can’t afford to feed their kids, statements like this used to make my eyes roll. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to agree with him.
Over the past couple of months, two close friends of mine from college have been diagnosed with cancer. Neither of their prognoses are good. Because the three of us are the same age, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I still want to accomplish in my life, as well as about the ways in which I spend my time.
Like many people, for most of my adult life I’ve had a “bucket list” mentality. That is the tendency to divide the things I need or want to do into two categories: “things I have to get done now” and “things I plan to do at some later time.” The former category usually includes tasks like writing magazine articles, grocery shopping, and folding the laundry, while the second encompasses activities like hiking in Scotland, reading the stack of novels on my bedside table, visiting old friends, and finally finishing the three book manuscripts currently living on my hard drive.
I never saw a problem with this until recently. When, after all, is “later?” And what would I have to show for myself, and my life, if I were suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness, unable to walk or talk or write another word? The answer, of course, is not the one I want.
The good news is that I still have time (knock on wood). I’m in the process of trying to figure out what work I can afford to turn down, and what household chores I can put off or delegate in order to make my bucket list my to-do list.
I don’t think it will be easy. It’s difficult to break old habits. And it’s even harder to ignore the voice in my head that tells me I’m being irresponsible if I choose to hike up a mountain instead of mowing the lawn.
Miles Davis died suddenly at the age of 65. It’s something that happens all the time. On an intellectual level, we know we are finite. But ours is a culture that eschews talking or even thinking about death. I think we need to start, though. Admitting to ourselves that we won’t be here forever, on a daily basis if necessary, is the best way I can think of to get the really important stuff done.