In the last few months many of the people I have met have had a close brush with death . . . heart attacks, strokes, cancer, traffic accidents. Meeting people who have stared death in the face brought to mind Buddha’s saying: “Of all mindfulness meditations, that on death is supreme”. Steve Jobs put it well when he said “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent….”
Every single one of these people I met – either in interview or as a client – were contemplating fresh starts, new directions or being more committed to what really mattered to them in life. A brush with death made them acutely aware of the preciousness of life. Some of them referred to “me before the accident” and “me after the accident”; “who I was before my illness and who I am now”.
It reminded me of Liam Cullinane’s account in a “ Cruel Blow for a Man of Action” in the Irish Times on November 20th, 2012. Liam, a former French Legion Soldier with the Parachute division contracted meningitis and lost his brain and bodily functions. He said, “It was a big shock that I was banjaxed. I felt lucky to be alive. . . I am grateful for my experience. It was like being reborn. I became a very different person because of it”.
Liam had lost his ability to talk, to move, his mobility, his strength. But he never gave up. In the 20 years since he contracted meningitis, he continually sets goals for himself and each time, the bar is higher. “I start running next year. Before I am 50 in five year’s time, I want to run a marathon”.
His story resonated with the accounts that clients gave me of how a stroke changed everything for them. One young former lorry driver in his mid-thirties described how he had to learn to talk again, move again and walk again. Each person I met expressed how grateful they were to be alive and how close they had been to the other side.
One man had been diagnosed with advanced cancer and given days to live, but he made it through. He described to me how grateful he is now to even hear a car passing his house each morning, as he knows he is blessed to be given another day. This man beamed unconditional positive love and now wants to spend his time working with children with disabilities. I was in awe of him; envious of the love and positivity he exuded.
Another man in his early twenties told me that he’d had a major heart operation. He was courageously frank about how he had wailed with fear of dying and then he spoke about how he changed since surviving the procedure. He says that he now has a greater sense of what, and who, is important in his life. The ‘old him’ was studying business but his heart wasn’t in it. The ‘new him’, with a repaired heart, wants to follow his heart and become a Social Worker and make a significant contribution to others.
At a CV clinic in a local college, I reviewed the CV of a girl in her early 20s who had severe diabetes and had to inject many times a day. She has turned her illness into a positive by promoting diabetes awareness for Diabetes Ireland.
She is genuinely passionate about helping fellow sufferers and increasing the awareness among the general public. Her public speaking and PR skills are very advanced and her passion is infectious. Unsurprisingly, pharmaceutical companies and Diabetes Ireland want her to come and work for them.
On her heels was another girl in her 20s who just placed her CV on my desk without saying a word. She was profoundly deaf and dumb. She typed a message on her phone and showed it to me: “How can I improve my CV?” Her CV was a work of art. It was extremely detailed, expertly laid out and the manner is which she described her studies; work placement and work experience was absolutely exceptional. I typed back “It is OUTSTANDING!” She smiled and busily typed on her phone. “But how can I make it more creative?” She was totally committed to being the best she could be and was not willing to compromise because of her inability to speak or hear.
These moments take my breath away. Such encounters make me sit up. My jaw drops in amazement at these people who overcome adversity. I become aware of my own body, my wellness, sight, mobility and so on. Also, I become aware of how important it is to follow your purpose and to be on your true path. All of us need a mission in life, a cause greater than ourselves. Alongside a sense of gratitude, a sense of perspective can help us overcome minor setbacks.
After meeting people who are paralysed, who have had major heart operations, cancer survivors and people who have lived their lives unable to see, speak or hear it bucks me into a place of intense appreciation. My preoccupation with a few extra pounds fades into the distance. As a Guidance Counsellor I am struck at how true they want to remain to what matters most to them in their life and work.
As Henry Van Dyke said “Be glad of life because it gives you a chance to love to work and to play and to look up at the stars”!
It does leaving me wondering, do we really need to stare death in the face to follow our career dreams? Do we really need to be in a crippled or disfigured state – by either fear or illness – before we move in a direction that is truer to our hearts desire?