Recently a close friend and I chatted for what turned out to be the last time ever. As we relaxed in her lounge, sipping fresh coffee and mulling a range of subjects as they came to mind, we had no inkling of the events that, only two days later, would take her from everyone who knew and loved her.
We all live accepting the transient nature of our lives and of those around us; we have no choice but to. And, realistically, we can’t spend every day focused on dying because that would deter us from really living. But it is these moments, these unexpected early departures, that challenge us to examine whether we are truly living the best way we can.
So how do we live our lives better and more fully? As soon as I ask myself that, I begin to think I should start training to climb Kilimanjaro, or raise funds for charity by walking somewhere barefoot, or maybe I should consider jumping off or out of something high. I never follow through on any of that though. My thought process will then turn to the person I want to be. I will quite readily look up from my phone, say something about realising you must appreciate every day, and then return my attention to Instagram.
But maybe it’s time we actually do something about living well. While big and challenging let’s-climb-Kilimanjaro goals have their own merits, they’re not necessarily the most important thing. Living life to the fullest may mean different things to all of us – we are all so different in make-up and circumstances, the specifics of what we actually might want to do and change can vary immensely. But if recent events have taught me anything, having an inherent peace in the present moment, and in whatever the unseen future holds, is important no matter who you are. So here are seven ways in which we can maintain an inner peace that really impacts our lives.
1. Tell the ones you love that you do. It isn’t necessarily appropriate to end each casual coffee morning with a declaration of deep feelings. But there’s a healthy way to be openly appreciative of those around us that declares our heart naturally. Cultivate an atmosphere of affirmation by being quick to express thanks, enjoyment and appreciation whenever possible. And when it comes to those closest to you, seriously – be generous with the “L” word.
2. Forgive and let things go. When a relationship breaks down, there are at least two people involved, and sometimes reconciliation isn’t up to you. And going back to some relationships isn’t always wise. But if it lies with you to resolve things with someone you care about, do it. And if it can’t be done, remember forgiveness is a separate matter from reconciliation, and intentionally letting a grudge go really does set you free.
3. Make every moment count. It was only hindsight that made the final conversation my friend and I shared seem incredibly significant. I guess if we’d known then what was coming, the conversation would have been entirely different. But there’s nothing I would have changed, simply because we made the most of the time. We talked about some real things; childhood memories, a perspective-challenging book she was reading, experiences we’d each been impacted by. Neither of us checked Facebook, or texted other friends. We just shared, listened and discussed. I really recommend paying attention to the people who are with you in the moment, and being sincerely interested in how they are.
4. Find out how the washing machine works. A couple I know who are in their early 70s found themselves in a hospital ward after the wife suffered a heart attack. While she lay in bed in a medicated and monitored state, her husband asked her, with some agitation, how their washing machine worked. He apparently even helpfully explained: “In case you don’t make it.” She recovered and came back home, and I strongly suspect he still doesn’t know how to use that appliance. But in all seriousness, for many of us there are probably bits of information that lie outside our realm of immediate knowledge; things that our partners, family members or housemates do that would cause us stress if we suddenly became responsible for them. If you’re in a couple, it’s a great synergy to share the load of running a home, but make sure you each know where to find the information you don’t personally manage. And if you’re single, tell a trusted friend or family member the practical things they might need to know on your behalf if it came to it.
5. Sort out the secret stuff. A friend who served with the British Army in Iraq told me that soldiers will box up their personal belongings for storage before going out on an operation. If they are killed in action, someone left in camp, in the presence of a senior non-commissioned officer, will go through their personal effects and remove anything that would be distressing to their family. She gave the example of inappropriate photos or letters. Part of me loved that the army shows such care in protecting the reputations of their fallen soldiers, as well as the feelings of grieving families. But isn’t it also rather sad for our lives to contain complicated elements we’d rather people didn’t know about? If you can identify an area you would want “sanitised” if you suddenly weren’t there to hide it, perhaps this is what you should be dealing with now. Life will be better for being free of it.
6. Live with purpose. Feeling frustrated and unfulfilled can be a side effect of making everything about pursuing our own pleasure. Start doing something regularly that is simply about helping someone else, even if it’s something small.
7. Get to grips with the bigger questions. I’m a Christian. And while people hold many stereotypes about Christians that aren’t true – that being a Christian automatically means I’m a particularly good person, or I think anyone else is not – what it does mean is that I have peace about important things, including my understanding of why I’m here, and what will happen if I’m suddenly not. I respect you may not share that belief. But whatever you do believe, humanity has always grappled with the contemplation of our origins, and so at least thinking about the big questions is, I believe, an important part of being human.
Those are my top seven tips for living life to the fullest – yours may be different. So what does really “living” look like to you? What small changes will bring about a healthy peace that allows you to live better now? Whether you follow my advice or come up with ideas of your own, life’s too short to not at least give it a bit of thought.
Emma Howden is a mum, sister, daughter and friend. She is a communicator at heart, believing understanding gained through clear communicating and listening can usually go a long way to help most relationships stay healthy. In a previous century she started her work life as a mainframe computer programmer, but now is loving a second career in communications, which has taken her to roles at a number of great charities. She has a strong-willed cat who regularly challenges her authority at home, and two teenage sons who make her laugh often and help keep her ideas and outlooks fresh.