The Most Valuable Lesson My Father Ever Taught Me

It was in late July 1995. My parents were on the first day of a six-week holiday in Northern Saskatchewan—the longest vacation they’d ever taken by far—when I got the call from an ER physician working at the local hospital. Her voice was calm and somewhat soothing when she informed me that my father had just died from a massive heart attack while out cycling that morning. He was 46. I was 19. For more on this life event, see this post.

Mindfulness alters the power that death holds over us. Pretty cool.
— Kashdan (p. 216, Thrive by Arianna Huffington)

That day, my life changed dramatically as I lost an important positive influence in my life. That day was also the day I received a gift that has been my faithful guide for years. Without knowing it, I received a dose of stoicism that altered my perceptions regarding what matters.

I haven’t always walked the perfect path the Stoics suggest, but I want to share this perspective with you nonetheless because I’m grateful for what it’s done and continues to do for me. 

I’m not afraid to think about the ultimate “worst case scenario”.

To be alive is the biggest fear humans have. Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive—the risk to be alive and express what we really are.
— p. 29, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

Realizing that a similar fate may await me, I’ve put a lot of weight on not waiting to do the things I want to do. 

Coming to terms with my own mortality has lead me to enjoy a lot of fun and interesting experiences over the nearly twenty years since by father’s passing because I never felt I could put something off if it really mattered to me. I wanted to make sure I could experience it all. 

Here are the guidelines I’ve created for myself based on the gift of knowing that my time is finite.

1. Don’t put “it” off.

Because I don’t take for granted that I’ll ever reach retirement, I’ve engaged in “retirement-like” activities and am an avid believer in the power of the bucket list

Examples include:

Given something like death, what does it matter if one looks foolish now and then, or tries too hard, or cares too deeply?
— Diane Ackerman
  • Seeking Out New Experiences: Trying new things on a regular basis, anything that strikes my fancy from food to adrenaline-pumping thrills.
  • Embracing Learning & Growth for Its Own Sake: Taking time away from income-related work to learn, whether it’s in a structured setting or on my own.
  • Buying Freedom: Steering clear of financial obligations by saving early and spending less to have the peace of mind and freedom that comes along with it.
  • Pulling the Plug: Leaving a corporate job despite its high status, great pension and benefits to avoid turning into a member of the walking dead. Leaving a group or activity regardless of sunk costs. Taking leave from a given activity to recharge.
  • Exploring New Possibilities: Being open to change. Redefining myself over and over. Always creating and considering options, evolving. I don’t know what my life will be like in five year, if I’m around, and it’s OK. 

2. Ask the all-important question.

If I don’t wake up tomorrow, am I satisfied with the life I’ve lived?

After love, the most potent human emotion is regret. It might be even more potent, because unlike love, you never get past it.
— p. 222, Things I’ve Learned From Dying by David R. Dow

This is the question I find myself reflecting on most evenings and I find it soothing as opposed to morbid. Most nights, I answer “yes” and, if there are too many nights I feel the need to answer “no”, I know something has to change and I feel empowered to change it. These questions have enabled me to live a better life and avoid spending too many days or weeks doing things that I’d eventually regret having spent time on.

3. Live in the NOW.

The prospect of our own extinction may draw us towards that way of life on which our hearts place the greatest value.
— p. 222, Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

I may not live another day and by thinking this thought, I take pleasure in the little things and find myself taking fuller advantage of what each daily activity gives me: joy. I strive to be productive because that makes me feel good. I strive to do what matters most to me on the priorities list and am getting better at dropping the “artificial” to dos. 

That doesn’t mean that I want to act selfishly and trash my health. To the contrary. When I behave in a way that’s not in line with my values, I experience regret and I can’t say I feel good at the end of the day. That keeps me moving, eating well and grateful for what I can do for myself and others. 

It also doesn’t mean I don’t make plans. Of course I do. Making plans makes me happier today. Looking forward to future travel and future experiences, even those that are well into the future, make me content today because I get to experience anticipation regardless of whether or not they actually happen. I get to dream about destinations or activities, anticipate what it will feel like to actually be there and do what I’m planning on doing. That anticipation can feel even sweeter than the memories I get to cherish once the time has passed.  

The occasional reboot is required.

Whose idea was it that we should all get jobs, work faster, work better, race from place to place with our brains stewing on tweets, blogs, and sound bites, on must-see movies, must-do experiences, must-have gadgets, when in the end, all any of us will have is our simple beating heart, reaching up for the connection to whoever might be in the room or leaning into our mattress as we draw our last breath. I hate to put it in such dramatic terms, but it’s kinda true.
— p. 283, The Big Tiny by Dee Williams

The above sounds simple enough but I’m far from perfect. Sometimes I need to hit the reset button. It usually happens when I start looking for external cues to living “the good life” as opposed to internal ones: my values. 

We all know the feeling when it happens. For me, it’s usually when:

  • I get caught up in some status-seeking activity because I don’t feel I’ve achieved enough.
  • I’m feeling overworked and lose sight of what matters. Impatience sets in and the “little things” I usually enjoy just seem to get in the way of productivity.
  • I feel like some external object will make my life better as opposed to asking myself why I’m not feeling like what I have isn’t enough. 
  • I start measuring my personal value in terms of dollars (such as my untapped earning potential).
One thing I’ve learned is that just because you can successfully lie to yourself doesn’t mean you’re not completely transparent to the people you love.
— p. 46, Things I’ve Learned From Dying by David R. Dow

Sometimes I call it and make the necessary adjustments and sometimes my husband calls it. Either way, I’m always thankful to get back to my more balanced perspective sooner than later.


Life’s our most precious resource.

Knowing it might all be over tomorrow gives us a strange kind of power in life. The days are more satisfying, fewer of them are taken for granted--including those we plan for--and small things just don't seem to get under our skin as much. It just makes life that much sweeter.

How are you living your days?


If you want to explore these ideas further, here are three books and four movies you may find useful:

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