Living Gratitude: A personal reflection on mortality and living your values.

On rare occasions your life changes dramatically in the space of one day. Sometimes events change us and sometimes people do. Other times an event and a person collide on a particular day, the effect of this collision ripples out into your own life, and you can never go back to being how you were before. The beginning of my learning to live with gratitude at the forefront of my life came as a result of one of those days.

I could explain to you why gratitude reflection is useful easily from a conceptual perspective or I could summarise the research demonstrating the positive effects of gratitude reflection on our physical and mental health for you. But the thing is, I didn’t learn this skill from research, a textbook, or in a lecture theatre. I first learnt this skill from the school of life. It became formal skill later. However, in the beginning it was an incidental skill that I learnt from the intersection between a very sad event and the way in which a rare individual, lived their life.

Boundaries, illusions, and shattered assumptions…

Most of us at some point in our lives come into close contact with an event that confronts us with the reality of our mortality. Psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom, refers to these events as ‘boundary experiences’, “urgent experiences that jolt us out of ‘everydayness’ and rivet our attention on ‘being” itself”. Various events or situations can be ‘boundary experiences’, such as the deaths of people we know, illnesses, significant injuries or other traumas. Until we encounter a ‘boundary experience’ we often feel as though we are somehow invincible, are fully in control of our lives, that there is plenty of time to live the lives that we really want to live, and that we are never going to die. When one of these events occurs often these assumptions and illusions that we hold about ourselves and our lives are shattered.

I have personally encountered a number of ‘boundary experiences’ in my own life, including the sudden deaths of three people that I had various significant relationships with. One of these deaths in particular affected me in a life changing way. In part, this was because it occurred at a critical point in my life where I didn’t feel that I was really living. The death of this person broke through any illusions that I was still holding about having more time to live my life the way that I wanted to.

This was the death of a friend of mine from school, his name was Brett McGough. Brett had always seemed to be somehow larger than life to me. To the best of my knowledge he was loved by pretty much everyone who ever met him (a direct reflection of the person that he was), and he lived his short life of twenty six years with more passion and authenticity than most of us manage to pack into a long life of eighty. Brett died eight years ago free diving off the coast of the island of Majuro in the Pacific Ocean, doing what he loved passionately. In his own words, he was “living the dream”.

There are some moments in life that stop your heart. The phone call I received that day to tell me that Brett had died was one of those moments. I still remember the feelings of shock and disbelief. I remember where I was sitting, who I was with, and what we were talking about in the moments before that phone call. I remember that I knew somehow that it was going to be bad news before any words were spoken. I still cannot reconcile eight years later how someone who seemed so full of life could suddenly be gone.

Brett’s death shattered any remaining illusions I had about being immune from death. When Brett died it was somehow different to the other two sudden deaths I had experienced in my adolescence. Most likely there was something about Brett’s age and about him being a peer. There was certainly something about him seeming so big in my mind, so larger than life. But the biggest thing was how he lived when he was alive.

When Brett died I had my priorities pretty unevenly sorted. I wasn’t living a bad life exactly, but I was prioritizing my career over and above everything else. I was disconnected from the things that mattered to me most. I had long admired how Brett lived and it had already caused me to question my own way of living. However, it wasn’t until he died that I fully absorbed how he lived and how important it was to live well. The mismatch between how I was living and how I wanted to live suddenly became so vivid in my mind, so undeniable, and impossible to move on from.

Brett’s death thrust me into a raging existential crisis complete with nightmares, panic attacks, and an intense fear that I might die at any moment, without ever having really lived. If I died at that moment, I felt that I would have died putting off all of the things that mattered to me, neglecting my health so much that I was living without good quality of life, and without showing the people that mattered to me how much I loved them. These suddenly inescapable truths absolutely terrified me.

For a while I kept trying to live my normal life because it I didn’t know how to do it differently. I felt somehow trapped into continuing with the Master’s degree I was doing at the time. I (erroneously) believed that if I walked away from this degree that this would be the end of any good career prospects in the future. I couldn’t see at that point that there was another way to prioritize things so that I could attend to all of the things that mattered in my life. I tried to persist well beyond what I now consider to be reasonable. However, my health, and my existential crisis eventually caught up with me. My body did what bodies always do when we refuse to listen to them (and our minds and hearts), eventually it forced me to listen. In actual fact, it was an enormous relief to stop when I finally did.

This type of existential or personal crisis is often what can be triggered when we encounter an event that brings us into close contact with the knowledge of our own mortality. Sometimes when this happens things shift in an irreconcilable way and we cannot go back to our old views or ways of living. Instead we have to work to integrate what we now know about life, the world, and ourselves into our old realities, creating an entirely new way of looking at life and often of living. I had to let the cracks in my reality be there, to allow what had happened to expose what needed to be exposed about my life and myself, before I could start to piece things back together in a new way. In every way, Brett’s death woke me up fully to my life and to what within myself needed attention, becoming a catalyst for essential change.

Value guided living…

One of the things that I found helped me out of this crisis over time was really thinking about how I wanted to live, what mattered to me the most, and how I wanted to show up in the world. In psychological work we call these things our values. It wasn’t so hard for me to figure out what did matter to me, because I had been deeply craving those things for a very long time. What was hard, was figuring out how to make my life work so that I could live in alignment with those things. Doing that required sacrifice, creativity, and stepping out of old prohibitive belief systems. It also required courage, because the changes that I wanted to make and how I wanted to live, didn’t necessary measure up to what some people in my life thought I should be doing. But, by sitting with Brett in my head for days, weeks, and months and trying to make sense of my life and the realities of our lives as human beings, I eventually found a way to do this, because I finally knew that it was really that important.

I had very much lost touch with my sense of meaning in life during and prior to this existential crisis. Holding Brett and how he lived in my mind led me to the clear realization that living your values was a key aspect of living with meaning and of living well. Even watching his life unfold at a distance, it was clear to see that he was embodying (living) his values. The extraordinary amount of love that still surrounds him today is to my mind in every way a representation of how much Brett embodied his values.

Through moving towards my values I found a way back to meaning. Over the past eight years my values have become like an internal compass for the decisions that I make in my life. When I have gone back to my old ways of doing things (like putting work above my health) a high level of internal conflict generally shows up and I am quickly reminded that that is not how I want to live. When I live in alignment with my values life is more meaningful, more joyful, I am more balanced, there is a sense of harmony and peace, and I feel more connected to the things and people that matter to me.

Honouring and working with the impermanence of life…

For a long time after Brett died I was gripped by anxiety about death. One of the key ways that I found to move through this was to move towards the reality of my own mortality, the reality that one day I will die, instead of moving away from it (or blocking it out). Moving towards that reality means intentionally making a practice of recognizing the preciousness and fragility of our human lives, and consciously bringing into focus and honouring our impermanence (that our lives are temporary). In my experience the awareness of the temporary nature of our lives can be harnessed to move us towards living our best lives and being the most authentic versions of ourselves. It can help us to remember that life is a gift to be celebrated. This awareness of the nature of our existence can also help us to let go of smaller concerns and grievances, preventing us from letting these things heavily impact on our days.

Time and time again the remembering of my mortality, helps me to set aside my fears and to commit, and re-commit to the life that I want to live. It helps me find the courage with which to do this, the conviction to live my own authentic and unique life, and to let go of self-doubt and fear of judgement that doesn’t serve me in doing so.

This leads me to gratitude. This is one of the standout things that Brett’s death and the close awareness of my own mortality taught me. It taught me to be grateful every day for the gift and miracle of life. I learnt to be celebrate and savour the good in life, and to connect with the good in each day, even if each day isn’t exactly how I might like it to be. I also learnt to recognise that even in tougher times, there are always things to be grateful for.

In my experience living with gratitude as an intentional focus is a game changer that subtly infiltrates your world view, it is indescribably transformative. Over time gratitude has woven its way around my life, becoming an intricate part of its fabric, lifting, enhancing, and amplifying the good, as well as creating resilience to the harder experiences of life. During harder times a formal gratitude reflection practice has connected me back to the good and miracle in life when it was hard to see, creating light within the dark, providing hope, connecting me to meaning, and helping me to find ways to move forward.

Because of Brett my life is exponentially different to how it used to be. Brett’s way of life and his death has made it virtually impossible for me to not chase my dreams, pursue my passions, and to live the life that I want to live. To me Brett serves as a constant reminder of the importance of living well, of living my own unique life, of living my truth, of connecting to gratitude for all of my moments, and of living life as if it really matters. I will be forever grateful to Brett for these lessons.

Note: The picture above is of Brett McGough (24.08.1982-05.12.2008). Before he died Brett was the manager of the Marshall Islands Mariculture Farm. Brett’s work involved corals and the US company he was working for, RMI, named one of these after him.