How Deep Does Your River Run?
One of my favorite teachers growing up used to have a quip whenever a student would ask her, ‘Do we have to?’
She would, without hesitation, respond, ‘The only thing you have to do is die and pay taxes.’ I would like to dispute the latter, but no doubt, the former is true. If we are sure of one thing in life, it is we will one day no longer exist.
Yet, when we die is a mystery. And what we do with what time we have is truly the only thing we hold in our hands.
So many great people seem to die young:
Alexander the Great (33)
Slyvia Plath (30)
Van Gogh (37)
Freddie Mercury (45)
Judy Garland (47)
Elvis Presley (42)
Heath Ledger (28)
Bruce Lee (32)
Paul Walker (40)
Bob Marley (36)
Kurt Cobain (27)
Anne Frank (15)
Jimi Hendrix (27)
Che Guevara (39)
The Notorious B.I.G. (24)
Steve Erwin (44)
James Dean (24)
Jane Austen (41)
Oscar Wilde (46)
Amelia Earhart (41)
Chris Farley (33)
George Orwell (46)
John Keats (25)
Emily Bronte (30)
Jesus Christ (33?)
Well, you get the idea. Great people from all parts of the world, moments in history, and walks of life seem to leave us a bit too soon. [Feel free to leave your favorites in the comments.]
Considering how much they offered and gave the world, it almost seems unfair that they died so young. Yet, when we consider how much they accomplished in such a short time, it begs us to look at the whole tragedy a bit differently.
It makes us wonder: should we measure the life of someone in such a simple way?
Life is anything but simple. And depending on the person, one could ‘live’ a lot more in 1 year than another in 80 years.
How open a person is to new experiences
How much have they created
How often do they allow themselves to feel
How profoundly have they loved
Quite simply, how deep does their river run?
Think about how we adjust the lifespan of dogs due to their size and anatomy. We adjust it accordingly so that we can better understand how much they have lived.
Or perhaps, think of the last vacation you went on. Traveling and exploring new terrains can leave you feeling exhausted, not to mention all the emotional and psychological experience of seeing new things rather than driving down the same road every morning and sitting at the same desk every day.
If we take into consideration how someone has lived, rather than how many days and years someone has converted oxygen into carbon dioxide, it wouldn’t be a far cry to say that:
Alexander the Great lived to be 95 years old in his 33 revolutions around the Earth.
Oscar Wilde made it to 89 by his 46th birthday.
Vincent Van Gogh saw 150 years in his 37 years.
The reason this matters, at least to someone like me, is that it helps put death into perspective. We get so hung up about the day we die. We didn’t have long enough. So, by looking at how much we really lived, perhaps, in the end, we had a very full and long life.
If we look at Kurt Cobain’s life, and we only see he died at 27. It seems very tragic. But if we, however, looked at how much he lived. How much he did. How he tried to live by wisdom and love. Not to mention the ups and downs of being with a woman like Courtney Love. It changes the scorecard completely of his life.
By looking at how deeply he lived, his life was anything but brief.
This isn’t to say you have to be some musical genius - or have any sort of genius capacity - to live long in a short time. Finding meaning and beauty in your everyday life can give you a long life. Being a zombie day in and day out, in my book, doesn’t add to your years of living. You’re already dead.
‘At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole god-damned nation of assholes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential candidate who reminded them most of themselves.’
- Charles Bukowski
One question we may all face one day while lying on our deathbeds is as basic as it is frightening,
‘How much of my life have I actually lived?’
The answer may be painful:
Maybe a month, here and there, during summer breaks as a kid.
The weeks surrounding the wedding.
The few days a first child was held.
A couple of magical hours dispersed where something amazing happened at work.
Those times when flirting actually worked.
Playing with puppies and watching their joy of splashing in the water.
A few deep conversations with friends.
Depending on how many moments like these you had, and how much you appreciated them when you were there (not looking back in nostalgia), you still may have only lived 1 or 2 years added up of your 78.
‘This is the real secret of life -- to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.’
- Alan Watts
Sadly, if we measured our lives by how much time we have spent in happiness or feeling anything real beyond ‘fine’ or ‘okay’, the conclusion will be disheartening. However, I believe it to be the correct way of measuring the length of a life.
We shouldn’t focus on how many days we have existed, but rather, how well we have lived.
In my time, I have:
Trekked the Himalayas
Silently meditated for 10 days where Buddha reached enlightenment
Been in war
Served in both the US Air Force
And the French Foreign Legion
Jumped out of planes
Camped inside the Arctic Circle
Written a novel
Married the woman I love
Driven across the continental US
This all just in my adult years. And no, this isn’t because I am rich or somebody gave this to me. I started my adulthood in debt and still made it all happen.
I am 33 now, and I could honestly say I feel as though I have lived a long life and would not regret dying tomorrow. Having said that, I am in no hurry to leave and still have plans to do more. I just may have more years to live - in a numerical way and in a real way.
‘If you really want to do something you’ll find a way, if you don’t you’ll find an excuse.’
- Jim Rohn
The point is, no matter how much time we have on Earth, it is really up to us how long we will live. Living with an open heart and creating climatic experiences is truly living. It is not to live in fear, but to respond to life and the world around you.
There may be a lot of sadness yet to come, but the idea of dying shouldn’t be a reason to mourn while we are alive. If we live a life with courage and sensitivity, we will live deeply and we won’t have any regrets when our day finally comes.
I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Don’t allow yourself to be one of these people. Don’t limit yourself with excuses. Even if you feel stuck, there is a light somewhere.
‘Live life to it's fullest or it may seem like you died young.’
- James Wattersmith
We may often wish we were dead just to get out of whatever situation we are in. To have our guts on the floor with dead eyes asking, ‘Are you still upset with me?’
Allow yourself to forgive and move on. Allow yourself to be forgiven even if the other was right.
Do we really want to spend our lives arguing over who disrespected whom, when so much happiness and admiration are able to present themselves?
As we walk towards death each day, should we not fill our senses with the wonder of existence?
This isn’t to warn ourselves that we are going to die. We know that. This is to warn ourselves to not die with brooding in our hearts.
‘We're all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn't. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.’
- Charles Bukowski
We don’t really get a choice in how long we live, but how we live is very much in our hands despite whatever excuses we may make for ourselves. Given this, we should measure how long we live by how well we lived rather than the lottery of how many days we had.
Even if you are over the hill in age, begging for more decades to waste is pointless. However, finding a way to do everything you can to truly be alive in whatever days you have left is worth learning wherever you are on your timeline on Earth.
Follow your gut.
Trust your heart.
Use your brain.