A story about lessons learned from the nursing home during my second #YearOfFear.
You won’t see this as a news headline, but you should:
SOCIETY IS SICK WITH THE DISEASE OF “BUSYNESS”
Being overbooked has somehow become a badge of honor. And I’m no saint.
When I was 22 I scribbled this well-meaning task at the top of my to-do list:
Walk into a nursing home. Ask the staff to nominate their loneliest visitor. Knock on an unsuspecting strangers door. Show up and listen.
My intention was to deliver some light and lovin’ to a wise soul who had been tucked away in a quiet room. To assure them they had not been forgotten about.
But busy days weaved themselves together to form busy weeks. Those busy weeks compounded to create chaotic months. Before I knew it, I stacked up a bunch of where-the-hell-did-they go years.
Isn’t it ironic how the most important things in our lives tend to get scheduled with the scraps of what’s left over after the rest of world takes what it wants?
Fast forward five years.
At 27, I decided it was time to start living the story I wanted to look back on.
My calendar would now include more than conference calls, work deadlines and other people’s needs.
I walked through the front doors of a nursing home in my neighborhood on a rare uncomfortably cold Texas winter evening. The staff scanned their roster looking for a resident who was visitor deprived. Their nomination sat quietly in room 202.
I walked nervously through the long quiet halls. The sound of my shoes echoed off the dingy yellow tile and boring beige walls. As I passed each door, I took the time to read every hand decorated name placard. I considered carefully that each represented a real person. An entire life story stretched behind I knew nothing about.
By the time I was standing in front of the hand-painted placard that read 202, my palms were sweating through my scruffy winter mittens. I had no idea who I was about to find. But I knew there was nowhere else on the entire globe my feet needed to be planted other than right in front of this strangers door. Why?
How To Be The Happiest Human In The Nursing Home
I knocked on the door intending to deliver a gift; but discovered one instead. On the other side sat ninety-eight year old Ella.
When I asked Ella about about the best moments of her life her response startled me.
Grabbing my hand, she squeezed it tight. Excitement washed over her as she replied through an enormous smile, “My life has been SO, SO FULL Kendra!”
Gratitude poured out of her and bathed the room the way sunshine flows over a skyline at dawn. No crevice left untouched. Warmth everywhere. I was confused… and equally fascinated. This was not what I had expected.
How did she feel so full while being tucked away in this tiny room? Yet many of us struggle to fight feeling empty while surrounded by our lavish lives and latest iDevices?
Grinning, she laid her long life out like a homemade movie; glowing about how she successfully collected an incredible amount of breathtaking beautiful memories.
She beamed about a powerful rebellious love that lasted decades. We chuckled in unison when she tallied up the outlandish risks of her youth (there were many).
She had the ultimate luxury that all of us are after but none of us can buy — a life well lived.
Even while living in a small room with outdated art and having a slow stream visitors the last few months, nothing could take away the satisfaction a life well lived now gave her.
During the hour and a half we spent together storytelling and laughing, Ella repeatedly and passionately urged me to make time for experiences. It was the number one piece of wisdom she wanted we wanted me to know after nearly 100 laps around the sun.
Driving home, I steered through tears. I considered how it took me half a decade to turn the door knob of room 202. I make it to the dentist at least twice a year when I’m behaving like a real adult!
What had I been doing all those years that was more important than moments like this?
The Life You Want To (Actually) Live Will Never Be Comfortable Or Convenient
I don’t remember most of my early twenties. Probably because I never slowed down long enough to actually live them. I was asleep at the wheel. My life was on autopilot. Thankfully I was young, but only incredibly dumb in that specific way once.
Everything changed when I started taking things off of my “someday” list and began putting them on a day of the week that actually exists: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
What I’ve found, and other people living with less regret confirm is, if something isn’t on the calendar it doesn’t exist.
Yes, we have to write the rent check. But not at the extent of getting to the end of our lives and wondering where it the hell it went.
Collecting experiences, adventures and face time with those we care about the most is at least–if not more important–than our bosses, business and dentist.
So what do we do?
Plan time off the clock with the same intensity and intentionality that we do work.
If we don’t, chance will lead us to choose comfort nearly every single time.
Getting comfortable being uncomfortable is the one hard thing we have to do to live a life we are excited and happy to look back on.
Hear me now but believe me later: until your priorities have dates in your day planner they will often tumble to the bottom of your infinitely expanding to-do list.
The part of this story you almost didn’t read was how I wanted to bail on Ella that night.
As great as my intentions were, they were doing a pretty pitiful job of getting me out the door when the weather was inconvenient and I was exhausted. By my own failure to set boundaries in my workload, I clocked a grueling ten hours that day. Plus, a friend who was supposed to tag along for the adventure bailed.
My motivation meter was sittin’ heavy on zilch. Nada. Nothing. No gas in the tank.
But this was no longer on my “maybe I’ll get to it list” that evening like it had been for five years. It was on my calendar. I had committed.
I had had finally learned to carve out time in my day so it would be about more than earning a paycheck.
Laying down my badge of busyness so I could live a life I would be proud to look back on could thankfully can start small. One day at a time.
I walked down the halls of that nursing home a year and a half ago. Do you want to know what I remember most about the week I knocked on door 202?
If you said that it wasn’t the deadlines I miraculously hit or how I felt when I didn’t want to leave my warm house and venture into the cold, you’re smart and I like you. 🙂
I remember the one time I slowed down that week long enough to create a memory worth remembering: Ella.
I remember who I had to become to face walking up to her door all by myself. I remember sweating through my mittens, not knowing what who I would find on the other side. I remember criss crossing my balmy fingers and cold toes hoping she would be grateful I was there (instead of wondering if I was a wacko).
I’ll never forget the way she hugged me goodbye. Long and hard. Like a friend she loved dearly and wasn’t sure when she would see again.
Although my task list had been impressively long that day I completed the most important item: slowing down to create a moment that I would remember.
And life has never been the same since.
How To Quit Living To Work And Work To Live
I’ve remembered a lot more from my late twenties than my early twenties. Simply because I started making appointments to actually show up and live them.
If we are more than our work and the demands of the world (and we are) why doesn’t more than that get scheduled on our calendar?
Imagine a list of 100 things you want to do or experience — little and large. How many of your goals, dreams and desires actually have dates on your day planner?
If we aren’t actively working toward slashing items off that list then why the hell are we working so damn hard anyway?
Now I have a new rule: always have something on the calendar every week I’m looking forward to. Memories worth remembering don’t often happen on accident.
We know our ideas to pay it forward will make us feel good. We know planning an unforgettable date night with our partner vs. just dusting off the Netflix queue will make us feel good. We know putting our phones down to be present and enjoy a playful pillow fight with our little ones will make us feel good. So why don’t we do those things?
Simple. We are all too busy… trying to figure out how to feel good.
Nobody Who Works Themselves To Death Wins
I promise you are more than your job. You are more than meetings and your mortgage. You are more than other people’s priorities for you.
So put more on the calendar than just those.
Take one thing off your “someday list” and put it on your calendar this week.
It doesn’t have to be large to make an impact. Small is the perfect place to start when you’re ready to start showing your calendar who is boss.
Block off time to make home from work at a reasonable hour and surprise your wife in the kitchen with slow dance and twirl as she cooks dinner.
Build a blanket fort with your kids. Flick off all the lights and navigate the house with only flashlights and curiosity.
Ask a friend you trust to set you up on a blind date with the most creative, interesting, lighthearted single person they know.
Walk into a nursing home and help someone who can do nothing for you.
Game of Thrones isn’t going anywhere, I promise.
Become A Professional Experience Collector
Consider that your life is a credits and debits system. All the experience, adventures, and memories you collect will put deposits into your happiness account. When you get to the end and it’s not as easy to adventure into the world or try new things you’ll need a lot of memories to draw credit against.
You don’t get brownie points in life for winning at working yourself to death.
Just because it’s normal to drift through your days or skid into the weekend before you can feel like you’re finally living doesn’t mean it’s okay.
Every breath you take is killing you. Are making decisions today that your future self will thank you for?
The happiest person in the nursing home wins.
Don’t let this be another article you read and don’t take action on…
In the comments, share one item you’ve been intending to do and the date you’ve put it on your calendar. If you need ideas, steal 100 of my best ones here.
Header image via Amar Remesh via Flicker.