Every morning, when we wake up, we have 24 brand-new hours to live. What a precious gift! We have the capacity to live in a way that these 24 hours will bring peace, joy, & happiness to ourselves & others.– –Thich Nhat Hanh
For a few moments yesterday, I flashed back to an earlier time in my life when every gathering, whether social or business, was dominated by the same question: “What do you do?” The answer, of course, was a title, a brief job description, something that placed me in the world of business and career, an answer that gave me “credibility” in the larger world. It was an identity badge that said very little about me, my life or what I held to be important and meaningful. Today, however, I was introduced to a new acquaintance at a neighborhood gathering, and naturally, we began with a question to one another, but it was “how do you know B?”–the neighbor to introduced us. Not fond of large social gatherings, I actually enjoy our neighborhood get-togethers. There are always familiar faces as well as new ones– people recently buying or renting one of the nearby houses. The greetings are friendly and warm. The once frequently asked“What do you do?” has been replaced by “Which house is yours??” or even recognition: “Oh yes, you’re the woman we see walking the little terrier each morning.” Rarely do we find out what each other does until later in the conversation, and sometimes, not until the second time we meet.
It’s not that we’re uninterested in each other’s work lives—we get around to it after a while—but our work and private lives blend into a fuller picture of who we truly are. I remember how, in those rush-rush years of career climbing, how rarely my different worlds intersected. My outer life may have seemed prosperous and successful, but privately, I was filled with stress. My other life—wife, mother, neighbor, writer was often neglected, parched and dying of thirst. I rarely had time to “feed” it as I ran from meeting to meeting. At night, as I re-entered the world my other life, I was often weary and unable to shut off the demands of the work day. More than a few times, I stared at my image in the mirror and wondered who, exactly, was staring back at me.
We have the unique capacity to inhabit several different “worlds” at any given time. We live our lives on many planes, as Patrice Vecchione describes in her book, Writing and the Spiritual Life. Even if we’re not aware of it, our inner and outer lives are always interacting; affecting and informing each other as we move between those different worlds each day. Yet in the busy, demanding work lives we sometimes lead, it’s easy to move between one world and another, barely aware that the needs of our inner lives are being ignored. Sooner or later, it catches up with us.
I once moved between my different worlds—professional, volunteer, friend, mother, student—as if they were separate, without giving much thought to the way in which those different aspects of my life interacted. It was as if I was on a virtual elevator, constantly in motion, racing between floors. Push a button, the elevator moved up or down, and stopped to open: “Second floor, family life.” “Third floor, workplace.” “Fourth floor, Business lunches and dinners. Fifth floor: Volunteer committee meetings.” I remember the constant rush of the pace I kept, moving up and down several floors each day—“Ding, office.” “Ding, meetings.” Ding, clients.” “Ding, Board volunteer.” “Ding. Family.” “Ding”… In my very busy and important life, I moved between those different worlds quickly, and the distinction between the floors blurred. I was barely aware that my spiritual life, which seemed to be housed in the basement and wasn’t getting much attention. I rarely pushed the elevator button to stop below the first floor.
“I know I walk in and out of several worlds every day,” poet Joy Harjo wrote in her autobiographical essay, “Ordinary Spirit” (in: I Tell You Now, 2005). Although Harjo was referring to her mixed race, in part, and the struggle to “unify” her different worlds, I was struck by what she said. The struggle I had in unifying my different worlds, inner life with outer one, wasn’t address with any sustained effort–not until I heard my doctor say “cancer.,” I was lucky; it was very early stage and immensely treatable, so gradually, I began to slip back into an “old” way of being. Then an unexpected episode of heart failure left me unconscious on the sidewalk, my dog’s still leash in my hand.
The heart failure episode got my attention. Any predictability I felt about life was scattered to the wind. Where I once felt I had some control over the course of my life, I now felt as if I was in free fall, an unwilling passenger in a wayward elevator, moving randomly between floors. Fear and depression colored my days despite my cardiologist’s reassurances. I sported a bump just to the left of my breastbone, a defibrillator housed there, underneath the skin, and a constant reminder of what had happened and the need to change my life. Unbeknownst to anyone, I began praying every night, sending silent pleas to some higher power, struggling to find hope where fear resided. It took time, and it took change—mine. I was forced me to think differently about my life and what, above all else, really mattered to me. .
I took steps to change my life, often repeating Ticht Nhat Hanh’s words as a morning mantra: “Every morning when we wake up, we have 24 brand new hours to live,” trying to do a better job of integrating my inner and outer selves, and blending my separate worlds into a whole as best as I could. As I did, I realized it was “only an illusion that any of the worlds we inhabit are separate ,” as Harjo had stated in her essay.” This “new” world, the one where I had suddenly become a heart patient, living with the knowledge how abruptly one’s life can end, indeed, how capricious life can be, affected all other “worlds” of my life in deep and significant ways.
This redefinition of life is something I witness repeatedly among the men and women in my expressive writing groups. Cancer ignites a crisis in everyone’s life, beginning with those fearful words, “You have cancer,” ones no one wants to hear: All the different parts of your life are affected. You move, numbly at first, through second opinions, treatment decisions, treatment regimens, appointments, aware that always, lurking in the background is that demon fear.
All that you are—who you have thought yourselves to be—in mind, body, and spirit–is thrust into upheaval. You can longer inhabit the different worlds in one’s life with the same assumptions you once did. What was once familiar now seems strange. And when the elevator finally ceases its terrifying ride and the doors open, and you are often confronted with a new and sometimes confusing landscape. The challenge, as I discovered, is to make sense of it and find a path to wholeness and healing.
The routes to healing, to wholeness, are different for each of us: faith, meditation, yoga, writing, music, art—what form it takes hardly matters. It’s the search, the seeking for the internal peace, acceptance of this new and altered life that matters. You have to learn now to inhabit a new world, one that integrates all the other worlds that have shaped you into the person you are.
I sometimes look back to that overworked self of more than two decades ago for whom stress was a steady diet, and who was caught up in the upward climb of a fast-moving career. I didn’t even like it, and yet, it was seductive for me and so many of my colleagues. I kept shoving my unhappiness aside until one day, as I walked to my corporate office, a spacious one high in the MetLife Building, overlooking Park Avenue in New York City, I caught a glimpse of image in a store window. Grim-faced, briefcase held tight against my body, shoulders hunched forward, stress oozed from every pore of the person looking back at me. “Who had I become?” The many worlds I inhabited every day were as unbalanced and separate from one another as they could be.
Change isn’t always easy. Trying to live intentionally is a conscious decision I revisit every single day. I still fumble sometimes, but not for long, remembering how cancer and heart failure brought me up short like a horse’s snaffle bit. I don’t want to relive those times. I stepped away from the stressful life I was living and chose a different way of living. That choice was only been only the beginning. Daily, I have to reclaim my spiritual life and consciously work to my life harmonious and whole—24 brand new hours at a time.
Her first steps, though cautious, began immediately to reinforce her faith in greater possibilities.
– George MacDonald
What about you? What different worlds do you inhabit each day? What are the many roles you play in your life? How do they influence each other? Were your “worlds” affected by cancer, loss or another unexpected hardship? Write about how you’ve moved in and out of different worlds or the many roles you have played before and after your life was altered in unexpected ways. What has changed?