There are days when it seems like my life is an uninterrupted stream of awkward conversations. My complete inability to talk about anything that’s happened in pop culture for the last decade is one example. No, I didn’t see that episode of Game of Thrones, or How I Met Your Mother, or Big Bang Theory, and please don’t start explaining it anyway. I have never watched an entire episode of The Office.
There are days when it seems like my life is an uninterrupted stream of awkward conversations. My complete inability to talk about anything that’s happened in pop culture for the last decade is one example. No, I didn’t see that episode of Game of Thrones, or How I Met Your Mother, or Big Bang Theory, and please don’t start explaining it anyway. I have never watched an entire episode of The Office. I see about three movies a year in theaters: the latest Star Wars release, and a documentary or two about running or cycling.
Then there are my interactions with the medical community. From the look on my surgeon’s face when I asked how soon I could be back in the gym after having my collarbone hardware removed, you’d think I was speaking Klingon. I never actually got an answer from him, so I took two days off and got back in there.
The eyebrows opposite me reach their zenith when I try to explain to someone why I would walk away from a military career after 15 years. That’s just not something you do, five years away from a pension and a guaranteed healthcare plan for life. For most military personnel, the point of no return happens around 10 or 12 years, and past that, they grit their teeth and stick it out to the end.
But underlying each of these countercultural decisions is my firm belief that life is too finite, and opportunity too fleeting, to waste my hours, days, and years doing things that don’t matter.
Purpose Creates Clarity
This is where the logic gets sticky. What matters to you isn’t likely to matter to me, and vice versa. Spending time relaxing with loved ones, even if it’s in front of the TV, is important. Giving yourself an adequate recovery window after surgery is essential. The work that I did during my time in the Air Force definitely mattered. I was fortunate to be involved in some things that had direct consequence on the lives of my fellow military personnel and our combat operations.
But there are other things that, to me, matter a whole lot more. A few years ago, as nearly everything I thought I understood about my life seemed to turn itself inside out all at once, I had to take a step back and decide what defined my purpose in this world. A lot of reflection and some solid advice led me to understand that learning, growth, and contribution to the greater good had become my top priorities. I had spent a lot of time trying to make my life better, but it was time to turn to improving the lives of others, instead. Once I had that defined, it became a lot easier to evaluate the things I was doing against the standard of my purpose, and leave behind the things that didn’t move the needle in the right direction.
The result has been a type of clarity that I never thought possible. Sharing a beautifully prepared meal with a friend matters; making every meal a delectable feast does not. Being present for family and friends in their time of need matters, and certainly more than chasing bigger paychecks; making an appearance at every single social event does not. Maintaining and improving myself physically so that I can be called on for help in any scenario matters; binge-watching Netflix does not. Studying, practicing, and seeking mastery in my crafts of writing and coaching to help improve the lives of others matters; occupying a desk for a further half decade to collect a meager retirement check does not.
This is not to say that I live a life of monastic asceticism. I don’t always succeed in adhering to my purpose in my daily actions. I occasionally stay out and have beers with friends when I should probably have water and go to bed early. I don’t always win the fight against the voice in my head that says I should stay in bed another hour, instead of getting up and getting after it. I get sucked into social media when I should be preparing for an interview, or reading a book, or building a new product.
The difference is that, without that clearly defined purpose, I would have nothing to pull me back toward the life I want to live. Purpose is a type of personal, internally created truth that serves as a guide in a world that is increasingly chaotic and fraught with temptation.
Life Through the Lens of Death
That I arrived at this mindset was not an accident. My Christian faith imbues me with the drive to seek goodness, strive for excellence, and treat people with compassion. My parents and coaches, from an early age, instilled in me the belief that it was okay to be different. Further, they taught me—in a world that rewards unethical conformity, treachery, and mediocrity—it is often preferable to be different. My upbringing created the intellectual and philosophical freedom that enabled my more recent pivot toward a life of purpose.
But none of that fully explains the urgency and resolve that have been evident in my life for the last decade or more. To the frequent chagrin of my wife (the most wonderful woman in the world and my parachute when I jump off the cliff before my wings are quite ready), I tend to dive headlong into pursuits that I know precious little about, other than they resonate with my sense of purpose. She and I have had many long conversations about why I seem to be in such a hurry to accomplish things, and gain experiences, and chase dreams. I tend to live life at full speed, and am likely to jettison people, things, and even careers that stand in the way.
The picture I just created of myself may sound flippant and noncommittal, but I believe it to be the opposite. There is a confluence of ideas in Christian theology and Stoic philosophy, summarized in the Latin phrase, memento mori. It means “remember that you will die,” and it finds ritual expression during the rites of Ash Wednesday: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Too often, philosophical truths are treated as esoteric, but I believe they should always have practical application. At first glance, the instruction to contemplate your death is morbid and depressing. It could create a sense of futility or even nihilism. But for me, memento mori is a call to action. If our time is finite and our physical presence fleeting, then we are charged to do as much as we can with what little we have. When life is viewed through the lens of our inevitable, impending, and unpredictable death, there isn’t time to do things that don’t matter.
Life Is a Limited-Time Offer
Twice in the last week, this truth was unexpectedly placed before my eyes. On Friday, I buried a friend and mentor who left before his time. On Saturday, I mourned with a close friend over the passing of his mother, who was so recently well. That we should be present for each other and grieve together in these times is the appropriate near-term response. But to me, they also serve as poignant and concrete reminders that no moment is guaranteed. We don’t know the number of our days or years, so it is imperative that we live each of them, to the greatest extent we can manage, in accordance with the truth of our purpose.
The most frequent (and often unsolicited) excuse offered for why people don’t look after their health and fitness is that they don’t have time. Like most myths, there is a kernel of truth in that statement. Life is complicated and busy, there are only so many hours in the day, and I myself have often bemoaned the fact that there is only one Pete for all the things I need to accomplish.
But the truth of limited time is a sword that cuts both ways: What are you doing with the time that you have? Are you making yourself more useful, more helpful, more fit for the challenges life will bring you? Are you setting yourself up for a life of contribution and fulfillment, or of dependence and self-preservation? What are you putting off for a day that may never come? When you say you don’t have time to eat well and move often, are you really saying that you think that your hours of media consumption matter more?
Whether you acknowledge it or not, your health matters, perhaps more than any other aspect of your temporal life. Shane Trotter did an excellent job of illustrating why physical vitality and fitness remain of utmost importance, even in a world constructed to deemphasize them. Postponing the work that is required to maintain your health only makes it harder to do later. To tell yourself that you don’t have time now is to write a check that you may not have the funds to clear later in life.
Take a hard look at the story you tell yourself about the way you spend your time. You may find, as I did, that you really don’t have time for the things that don’t matter.