The aftermath of my mum’s death has proved to be a period of sorrow, reflection and contemplation. A lot of sadness yes, but interspersed with moments of joy and gratitude especially to the many people who got in touch to express their sympathy. I’ve also become acutely aware of my own mortality and latch on to any stories involving illness, particularly cancer, and especially if it’s a terminal situation. Yesterday, I read about Lynda Bellingham, the effervescent actress who has written about facing up to terminal cancer. She described herself as a liver and lover of life. This resonated with me. It paints a picture of someone who cares about living their life to the full, wresting every last drop from the experience.
So I thought: what does it mean to live life to the full? Does it mean having many and varied experiences, travelling the world, seeing the sights, sampling different cultures, speaking different languages? Does it mean being successful in your work, gaining promotions and being recognised as an expert? Is it about having a successful marriage, having children or a successful social life, a wide circle of friends? Or is it about being creative: writing poetry, painting, playing a musical instrument, singing and dancing? Or is it about being kind and charitable? Does it mean being politically active, seeking to change and influence the way the world conducts its business? Or does it involves meditation, prayer and contemplation? Is it about having money in the bank and nice possessions? Does it mean having a comfortable home, a retreat , a space to call one’s own? Is it about peace of mind? Is it about embracing culture? Or having a passionate interest in sport? Is it about eating well, exercising adequately and taking care of your body? Is it about the pusuit of knowledge and understanding?
The answer is that there are as many answers as there are people. To use my favourite legal phrase: it all depends on facts and circumstances. Context is everything and it changes.
Resistance to change creates suffering. In my case, I realise that I cause myself physical suffering by fighting to do the things I used to take for granted and emotional suffering by believing my imagination about the things I ought to be doing. Specifically, I believe that in order to live my life to the full I ought to be living in a certain way. After all, I see my contemporaries doing this: going to work, raising their children, having nights out and holidays and various activities from the list above and I want this too. This longing causes anguish. All the more so because I did not choose my change of circumstances. I did not ask for this illness and I would like it removed, with immediate effect.
But hold on, isn’t it possible for me to live my life to the full in a different way, taking account of my illness rather than resenting its presence? After all, I was never going to be Prime Minister, Pope or a pop star anyway. Can I find a way to have a variety of enriching experiences, and enrich other peoples’ lives, within the context of my existence? In other words, can I reframe my life from one of loss, longing and suffering to one of fullness? If so, what, realistically, would that look like?
I think it begins with acceptance of my limitations. Toni Bernhard writes about this so beautifully in her book ‘How To Be Sick’ and I recommend a read of this for anyone trying to manage a serious illness. It’s about bringing peace to your heart, mind and soul. From there, to consciously direct my attention on what I do have and what I can do and the achievements I can make, not some mythical perfectionist ideal. Thence to listen to, and act upon, my instincts, being kind and compassionate with myself.
So, this might mean that a full life for me in any given day involves learning about the day’s events by watching tv, engaging in a social life by having a visitor or exchanging tweets, being creative by writing this blog or (on a good day) standing for long enough to make soup. Or counselling my children from a prone position. Or offering a listening ear and gentle advice. Or watching the changing seasons from my window: like an ever-changing triptych painting. Or reading and dozing, allowing my body to rest. Or taking pleasure in seeing, reading about and hearing the exploits of my friends. Or simply being: having time in peaceful solitude, untroubled by external pressures. Or being grateful for the many and varied ways in which goodness and kindness express themselves in my life.
This doesn’t mean that a corner of my soul doesn’t long to be outside gadding about with gay abandon; only that the thought doesn’t prevent me living my life, with all its limitations and debilities, to the fullest extent.
What does living life to the full look like to you?