living in the momentLet me be clear on two points right from the beginning. First, I’m not referring to Robin Williams, the man, and his decision to commit suicide. For the purposes of this column, I’m referring to Robin Williams, the actor, and his role in the 1989 film “Dead Poets Society.” Second, I wasn’t watching “Dead Poets Society” as some sort of homage to Williams after his death. I just happened to be on a trip without my children and actually had a few minutes of quiet to watch something that didn’t involve cartoon characters.

Moving on. Some of you may have read my column at the beginning of September about my experience with kidney cancer. I can only assume that if you did, you have been waiting anxiously for a follow-up column on my pathology report. The good news is that I’m most likely not going to die anytime soon from a recurrence of the cancer. (I know, you can all breathe a sigh of relief.)

When I got the original diagnosis, I didn’t pray that I would survive. Even if I knew there was a God, I wasn’t sure what right I had in asking to live. What made me any different or more important than the slew of good people who die each year from cancer?

However, while I didn’t pray, two weeks after the surgery to remove my kidney, as I was walking in the park with my son and waiting on a call from the doctor with the pathology report, I made a promise to myself. It was similar to a promise most Gen Xers who saw “Dead Poets Society” made to themselves, but like many of them, I had forgotten this promise until I was once again faced with death.

Most members of Generation X were born and grew up at the tail end of the Cold War, a time that left a lasting impression about the impermanence of life and unpredictability of death. I still remember drills in school preparing for a nuclear attack, much like an earthquake drill, but infinitely more terrifying. And who could forget movies like the original “Red Dawn?”

To an extent, Gen Xers have always been running away from death, but in 1989, “Dead Poets Society” taught us to face our fears, to look them straight in the face, and in some ways, to even flaunt death. In the movie, Robin Williams is an English teacher at a prep school for boys. On the first day of class, Williams has one of the students read the first stanza from the poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” by 17th century poet Robert Herrick.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles today

Tomorrow will be dying.”

This poem was considered one of the most accurate reflections of the philosophy of carpe diem. Latin for “seize the day,” this idea of recognizing the brevity of life and living in the moment is originally attributed to the poet Horace, and if you’ve seen “Dead Poets Society,” you know it was a philosophy extolled by Williams’ character.

Seize the day. Suck the marrow out of life.

Thus, we did. Even though acting recklessly wasn’t Horace’s original intent, looking back 25 years later, I wonder if it wasn’t just the fear of nuclear annihilation but also the charge to “seize the day” that was the cause of the rise in popularity of extreme sports such as bungee jumping, skydiving, freestyle mountain biking, snowboarding, and more.

So what happened to us since? The easy answer is that we grew up, but if you’ve been drawn into my train of thought here, you might have already decided that “growing up” is a poor excuse for forgetting to live.

I almost titled this column, “Advice you probably won’t heed” because you’ve already heard this before, right? Snippets of other poems, quotes, memes. The most recent buzzword for it is “mindfulness.” All telling you to savor the moment you’re in right now.

“Yeah, I should really do that more often,” you probably tell yourself. And then you proceed to dwell on yesterday or tomorrow and ignore what’s happening today.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying to go out and do something reckless, especially if you have a family to support. That wasn’t the promise I made to myself. As I walked through the park with my son, wondering if the doctor was going to call with bad news, I stopped thinking about what might happen and really noticed what was happening right then. I looked at the mountains, where color was just starting to appear. The clouds were a brilliant white against an especially stark blue sky. I could actually smell “autumn,” and I noticed the way the sun played off my son’s halo of hair as he did the 2-year-old version of running down the sidewalk, chubby little legs propelling him while his arms swung all akimbo.

In that moment, I was actually living in that moment. Nowhere else. It was amazing. And I made the promise that from then on, I would take some time every day to just be in the moment.

That’s what it’s about. Obviously, as adults we can’t always “live in the now, man.” We have jobs and bills and responsibilities that don’t necessarily take care of themselves. Sometimes you have to think about the future and evaluate the past. But if you can take at least one moment out of every day to just be in the present, you would be a whole lot better for it. Not just you, but also those you interact with.

Columns like this usually have some questions or steps to help guide someone, so let me throw a few questions at you. Pick a day when you are supposed to be at your most relaxed, like when you’re not working, to ask yourself these questions.

  • Are you still thinking about work? Either what happened earlier or what’s going to happen when you go back?
  • Does it really change what happened earlier? How about what’s going to happen when you go back? Admittedly, sometimes it does help to think about the next day, but I’d be willing to bet that most of the time, you aren’t getting any new ideas, innovations or inspirations; you’re just thinking about the next day.
  • When you’re with your family or friends, are you really with them? Or is your mind somewhere else? Are you actually listening to what they are saying? If you have children, are you engaged in what they are doing, or just nodding, pretending to listen, and thinking about something else?
  • In general, how much time in your day do you spend thinking about what you wish was happening, what might be happening soon, or what you’re working on making happen versus what is actually happening right in that moment?

As to steps for improvement, I don’t really have any. You just have to do it. And I’ll tell you, it’s not easy. The past and the future have a nasty way of interrupting the present without even trying. It’s hard work to live in the present. It takes practice.

Maybe that’s why we don’t do it, even after we read the poems, quotes, or memes and tell ourselves, “Yeah, I really should do that more often.” Maybe this column will be just one more reminder you’ll forget when “real life” steps on those things deemed “less important.”

But maybe it will be the kick in the pants some of you need.

For me, it took knowing that if the cancer had spread, I only had about a 10 percent chance of surviving, of witnessing my 4-year-old daughter grow into a beautiful young woman, of watching my 2-year-old son become a man I would be proud of, and then seeing them both fly the nest, leaving their mother and me to return to living once again as simply man and wife.

That’s what it took for me. Wouldn’t it be nice if it didn’t take death or tragedy for you to remember to live your life? Wouldn’t it be nice if that could be accomplished by simply taking 10 minutes out of your day to read this column?

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles today

Tomorrow will be dying.”

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts or comments, and for the first two weeks following the publication of each of my columns, I will personally respond to each comment within 48 hours.