As you may have guessed by now I am a great believer in the existential nature of life. The great privilege of having the opportunity to bring profound purpose and meaning to our experiences. The ability to shape our own life and possibly those of other people through progressively wiser thought, word and action.
The knowledge and insights arising from those experiences have the capacity to move us towards happiness and away from suffering. Of course the path is neither straight nor wide, but often rather steep, winding, narrow, full of confronting adventures and uncertainty.
And it is to uncertainty that I wish to speak. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or its sequel The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, you will get more than a sense of the uncertainty of life, not only in terms of experiences, but perhaps more importantly, in terms of the timing of our mortality.
We often make assumptions in our minds about how long we expect to live, or how long we expect to be healthy, and so on. But in reality there is no guarantee. On one level we know this, but on another level, a deeper level, we ignore it in favour of “I won’t die today”. Our minds have a habit of deluding us in ways that may appear helpful but in reality work against us. Assuming for example that we won’t die today often leads us to putting effort into unimportant, even mundane or destructive things. It may cause us to treat ourselves and others with indifference, even disrespect and harm.
It may also involve putting off until tomorrow those things that are important but can wait because we think we have time. For most of us, this will end up being true but for some, the opposite is true. We are all intimately aware of this through witnessing the experiences of others less fortunate (and my career experiences certainly taught me this). And for those who do end up living a long life, we can only know this by looking backwards, not forwards.
Both movies are very much about an older generation that struggles to come to terms with pending mortality along with unmet expectations, missed opportunities, late change in lived experiences and, perhaps more positively, realisations of truth about the meaning and purpose of their lives. In one particular scene, the character played by the famous Actor Maggie Smith is approached by a gentleman who, in observing her commitment to the younger generation, tells her that he admires her for “planting the seeds of trees under who’s shadow one may never sit”.
I was really captured by this metaphor because of its profound truth about how to approach the “sunset of our lives”, whether that is perceived to be long, short or uncertain. In other words, as we gain more and more a sense of our mortality and its relationship with the uncertainty of its timing and the certainty of its arrival, there are questions which inevitably arise: What legacy do we wish to leave? How would we like to be remembered? What would ease our minds as we move towards the finality of this life? Hopefully, that legacy is oriented, at least in part, towards the benefit of others, whether or not we live to witness that benefit, or perhaps more importantly, whether or not we are ever acknowledged for it. For those of us who lead formally or informally, tacitly or explicitly, I think these questions are important. As leaders what we think, say and do matters. And it often matters much more than we give ourselves credit for. So much of what we think, say and do shapes the quality of not only our own lives, but of the lives of those we lead. Today’s society is so geared towards efficiency, effectiveness and outcome that the means by which we lead others to achieve these things can either leave a legacy of hope, inspiration and good will or it can leave a wake of hopelessness, devastation and ill-will, not so much by what is trying to be achieved, but the manner in which those achievements are pursued.
So if you hold any position of influence over someone else or a group of others, I would say three things…
Firstly, your leadership tenure is as uncertain as the tenure of your life. This alone is worthy of great contemplation.
Secondly, make every thought, word and action count for the better. Really understand the level of trust and faith people put in you to lead them through an increasingly ambiguous, complex and uncertain world. Genuinely understand what legacy you leave in every moment of interaction with others. However imperfect you may be, keep going and develop the courage and confidence to just get better.
Thirdly, come to understand that the only moment in life we ever have is the one we are in. It’s the only moment we’ve ever had, and it’s the only moment we will ever need. For it is only in the present moment, not the past nor the future, do we get the chance to make the difference, leave the legacy, honour the greatest purpose and meaning of our lives.
And how might we know we had succeeded? Perhaps to be remembered by the immortal words of Ralf Waldo Emerson, the American essayist, lecturer, philosopher and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. On the subject of a meaningful life he wrote this:
To laugh often and love much,
To win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children;
To earn the approbation of honest critics,
And to endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty; to find the best in others;
To give one’s self;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.