I got an email this week from a close friend. He shared a note he’d received from a colleague who was suffering. The note was a desperate plea from a dying warrior, a man who’d spent his entire life building his dream – a thriving business – and now, long before he’d learned to stop and enjoy what he’d created, he was dying.
“… After two years of suffering I think I’ve earned the right to send this note. There is no point having your dream job if you’re going to let it kill you. I managed to convince myself for years that waking up in the morning feeling like I hadn’t slept was all part of the job. That I just didn’t have time to eat properly, that I was just too tired to exercise, that I was just too stressed to meet up with old friends and just have a laugh, that everyone has to miss priceless moments on the weekends with loved ones just to be ready to go again on Monday. If this resonates with you STOP! TAKE A BREATH AND LISTEN TO YOUR HEART. That voice that tells you that you’ll address these issues once you’ve achieved this or that, or when you are older, or when you have finished an important job is not your friend, it’s your enemy. It’s time to listen to that other voice – the softer, kinder voice that says, ‘be kind to yourself, look after yourself, live your life how you want to, not how you think you have to.’ It is my personal belief that if you ignore what your heart is telling you for long enough, eventually it will make you listen, in the form of illness, not to punish you but to save you. My reason for writing this is in the hope that even one person can avoid experiencing the same fate as I …”
I gulped down hard as I read that, remembering the not-too-distant past when I was that man. Working obsessively … holding my breath … sacrificing my body … trying to find the courage to live with as much passion as I worked.
We talk about work/life balance as something separate and apart from life. As if the countless hours spent working and worrying about work and worrying about worrying about work were time, frozen somewhere in space, divorced from the other thing we call life. But it’s not, and when we read a story like the one above we’re reminded of this.
We are working ourselves to death. We call it cancer or heart disease or auto-immune disease and that’s fine. But just below the surface, beyond the label, we know the truth because it’s something we’ve felt our entire lives. Before the doctors gave it a name, we felt it. We are all dying of the same thing … a gaping hole in our heart, a lack of love, a sense that we’re not good enough, a belief that we’re unlovable.
And so we work … and work … and work in hopes of filling the hole or, at the very least, distracting ourselves enough to forget about the pain. But it’s all life in the end, and we all end up addressing the hole at one point or another. For some this comes as a trip to the therapist, for others a trip to the oncologist. For a moment we see clearly: we connect with the hole and sense there must be something more. But that hurts (unbearably), so we ease the pain with a stiff scotch or a pharmaceutical cocktail. And we are lost again.
That we can ease the pain with anything other than love is a myth, one that winds through the tall tales of our minds and the tall buildings of our cities. A myth engrained in our culture – its music, movies, and art. The myth is called the American Dream, an ideal that money and power derived from hard work are worth sacrificing our lives for, that they will heal our wounds, lift our spirits, and make us great. It sounds good. We get drunk on it. We consume it in mass quantities. It fills our history books and the heads of our children who read those books, alone, while waiting for us to come home from work, only to work some more from home. Then comes the day when the hole is too large and we can no longer hide; the day we find our whole life is lost in the hole.
From a hospital bed or a doctor’s waiting room we awaken, see the hole for what it is, and, while desperately wishing for a little more time and a lot more love, we write a note to our friends and colleagues ― “There is so much more to life …” we plead, begging them to listen. And perhaps they do for a moment, until they wipe the tears from their eyes and rush off to meet an important deadline.
We tend to read these messages and jump to the conclusion that work is somehow bad. Or worse still, that we are bad for doing so much of it. But that is all part of the same hole. It’s the voice of the hole, which taunts us with its message of insecurity, fear, and self-loathing. Instead, we have to go beyond the hole and listen to the message of our heart. Unlike the screaming of the hole, the heart speaks faintly, requiring that we get quiet and listen ― truly listen ― to hear its message. It speaks the message of truth: You are good. You are loved. Just as you are, without lifting a finger or doing a thing. As you sit here, reading this – “wasting time” ― you are worthy.
The first time I heard that message I cried. It released a lifetime of worry and struggle, of hiding in the shadows of success. It also sparked a troubling question, one that we all at one point or another (or perhaps many times) must come to terms with: “If I am good just as I am, why am I working so hard?” Or as an exasperated friend said to me once, “I’ve been lied to about love.”
I read a quote from Andrew Carnegie recently. He was asked why he never stopped, why despite having achieved wealth beyond his wildest dreams, he never took a break. He responded with the vulnerable truth: “I couldn’t stop. I’d forgotten how.”
Filling the hole ― healing our hearts ― begins by remembering; not just every once in a while as we sit at a friend’s funeral or on the beach when the iPad is out of range, but a practice of remembering … again … and again … and again. Like the unwavering voice on your car’s navigation system, we must remind ourselves of our worthiness even as life leads us down one way streets, through wrong turns, and in to traffic jams … we must remember. You are good. You are loved. You deserve life … and love.
This remembering, for me, has come in the form of a daily practice of yoga, meditation, and nutrition, the very things (now trendy) you read about in glossy magazines and Twitter posts that always seem to fall under the heading of “5 Tips for a Better You!” Instead of using these practices to trick ourselves into working more, we can engage them as tools to remember the art of loving ourselves. I stretch my body not just to be limber but because yoga gives me the opportunity to care for every inch of my body and, in doing so, my body remembers that it is good. I meditate not to tune out my thoughts, but to embrace them, and to embrace myself. I practice accepting what I find inside when I sit, and in doing do so I remember that I am loved exactly as I am. I eat nutritiously not just to look good but to feel good, employing nutrition as a physiological hug for each of the trillions of cells that constitute my body, and in doing so, my cells remember that I am deserving of a healthy life. This is what daily practice is all about. And perhaps more importantly, this is what life is all about. Remembering.
I frequently end these posts with an invitation. This week I want to end more emphatically … with a plea that you remember, an urging that you stop what you’re doing right now, that you look into the hole past the stories and beyond the myth, and that you find the love. I want you to remember that you matter, that there is no honor in the sacrificing of this life you’ve been granted for any dream. Remember this not just today, but each and every day as you stretch, meditate, breathe, and nurture your being. You are good. You are loved. You deserve life. This is a truth worth dying for, but it is so much more beautiful to remember it while we’re living.
Big hugs of love,