Kathleen Taylor counsels people in the last stages of life. Ironically for her, being with the dying has revealed some of the secrets of living a full and vivid life. An inspirational and empowering talk from a voice of genuine experience.
Here’s the transcript of her inspirational talk:
For most of my career as a counsellor and a community engagement facilitator I’ve been in the role of a professional listener to stories. And of all the stories that I’ve heard, it’s been the stories of people who are dying that have really stayed with me, and taught me the most.
I’ve worked for a hospice for 18 years, and for about the first eight years of that I was a bedside counsellor. And I remember when I first started that job I had absolutely no reference point at all for what it was like to be around people that are dying.
My only scheme was really from the movies, so I half expected people to turn into Yoda, I think… and whisper Jedi secrets in my ear from their deathbed… somebody just got excited? No, that didn’t happen!
In reality, people at the end of their lives are still just people, and they’re doing the best that they can to make sense of where they are in the journey.
And dying is a very personal and individual thing, and every life story is unique. But I can tell you that even through the uniqueness of every story that I witnessed, I noticed some hopeful consistencies in what seemed to matter, and not matter, to people who were in the last chapter, and sometimes in the last paragraph of the last chapter.
So while I can’t share Jedi secrets, I’ll try to share some of those lessons with you.
People used to ask me often how I could possibly enjoy my job? How I like watching people die all day long? And I have the hardest time trying to explain that the reason I loved what I was doing, is because people at the end of their lives are incapable of bullshit! They really are.
When a person’s relationship with their body, and with activity, and doing changes… and when they’re facing the task of wrapping up an entire life, a lot of the normal worldly daily distractions that usually tempt us away from being honest with ourselves, kind of fall off the map.
And those distractions are different for everybody. They are things like being right… being important, being busy, being guilty, being self conscious… that kind of stuff.
“At the end of their lives many people become these distilled, crystallised, pure versions of who they are. And with no time or strength left to be otherwise, they’re being who they really are.”
And out of this sense of authentic self, people get incredibly courageous, and open, and intimate and honest. They’ll talk about things they’ve never expressed before. They will reconsider things that they have been certain about for their entire lives. They do brave stuff like change their mind, and apologise and forgive. They express love where it needs to be expressed and they manage to find joy in the smallest moments.
As their bodies slow down, their perspective seems to shift and their presence actually seems to expand.
The New York Times last year did a feature on a guy named Neil Selinger who was a retired attorney and he was exploring his interest in writing when he was diagnosed with ALS. And as he deteriorated he wrote essays about his experience, and The Times feature quoted a piece of one of those essays that said:
“As I diminished I grew. As I lost so much, I finally started to find myself.”
And I saw this theme of finding oneself over, and over, and over. Not with everybody, but with most people, and much more often than I would have thought. And the more time I got to spend with people who were in their last chapter, the more I learned about the incredible transformative power of this kind of authenticity… and what it could offer us, and how it was possible.
A lot of what I am talking about is reflected in theories about the ‘developmental tasks’ at the end of life (yes you still have them, even when you’re dying!) It ends up that some of the purpose in facing your mortality is to look back on the body of work of your life, and develop a deep sense of self, and really finally awaken to the preciousness of time.
The end of life is the place where this kind of normally and naturally happens… I guess because illness and decline causes a sort of forced sitting meditation. You know… don’t just do something – sit there!
So roughly, and probably inappropriately put… when we’re young we’re fearless, and we set a course. And then somewhere in the middle of our lives we start questioning the course. And then at the end of our lives we find the answers about the course.
An Australian hospice worker named Bronnie Ware wrote a memoir called ‘The top five regrets of the dying’. She asked a bunch of her hospice patients if they had any regrets – and the number one regret that she noted is:
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, and not the life that others expected of me”.
So dying people teach us that it’s never too late to shed what’s false, and to become who we truly are. But I’d like to hope that it’s never too soon… I mean… does your physicality have to diminish before you realise that you’re not just your body?
“So dying people teach us that it’s never too late to shed what’s false, and to become who we truly are.”
Do you have to be dying before you realise that you don’t have a soul… you are a soul? So here’s the challenge if you are willing to accept it today. Let’s don’t wait until we are are at the end of our lives to find out who we really are. And I’ll tell you why I think this is so important. And I’m going to get cosmic on you, so hang with me!
Let’s assume together, for the purposes of this talk, that there is a creative force in the universe. And you can call that God, or biology or evolution, or whatever you want. But there is a creative force that constellated all the elements and put each of us together the way we are.
You are a creative expression of that force.
And you are the only one that is, or ever will be, constellated just the way you are. You’re the only one who thinks like you, you’re the only one that sees the possibilities that you see. You’re the only one who loves the way you love. You’re it.
And while we’re all ‘cosmic brothers and sisters’ and we’re all made of energy and life force and all that stuff… in this incarnation anyway, you’re the only piece of that life force that’s shaped just like you. With your particular insight and artistry and passion.
So if we’re all collectively one symphony, then we’re each as individuals different notes, and every single one is important.
Have you ever asked yourself the big existential question “What am I supposed to be doing with my life?”
I can barely see, but I see like all the people over forty are nodding! Well I have good news… I think that’s the wrong question. Actually I think the better question is “Who am I being with my life?”
There is an intersect between doing and being, but I’m pretty sure being comes first. And what you’re supposed to be doing with your life will flow out of who you truly are. You really can’t screw that up if you do it that way!
Elizabeth Gilbert wrote “God shows up in us, as us.” And I think what this means is that that creative force actually needs you – to figure out who you are. So that you can create in the world and for the world, as only you can.
Imagine if we all figured out how to do that! If we all figured out who we truly are, and we contributed to the world through that. And imagine if we all figured out how to do it while we still had healthy working bodies.
Action and creativity and innovation that comes from true authenticity is what moves the world forward. And it has the lovely side effect, by the way, of creating joy.
We sense intuitively that this stuff is important – I mean there are country songs and facebook updates, and I’m sure there’s a lost Oprah episode somewhere devoted to the theme of living every day like it was your last.
But I’d like you to consider how you would do this. And it might not be by jumping out of an airplane, or riding a bull for 2.7 seconds, or completing a bucket list of adventures. Take a hint from how people actually spend their last days.
If you really want to live every day like it’s your last, then do some introspection. Discover and express your amazing uniqueness in the world. Stop bullshitting!
Make your life story about how you truly are. Because I believe the world needs you to.