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Observations: Nothing more to lose

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“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” -- Steve Jobs


A friend I have known since second grade sent an email telling me his dog had been diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. In the email, he included a quote from an Indiana Jones movie: “We have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.”

On that day, the quote certainly appeared apt. A coworker, a woman I have come to admire and love, lost her husband. He was a good man; he had a good spirit. I know that because I could feel it whenever he came into the office. Everything around him brightened.

Also on that day, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs passed away. Regardless of your opinion of Apple products, Mr. Jobs had something in his heart that few people possess or have the courage to unveil. I am certain that history will show him to be the Thomas Edison of our time. He changed the world; he changed how we see the world. In my home, I have more Apple products than I care to admit. I don’t own those products from being a “fanboy” (a term often used to describe those obsessed with Apple), I have them because they work, and they do what I want and need them to do. Every article I have ever written, every photo I have taken has gone through a Mac before it has landed on your driveway. Furthermore, despite this being the age of disposable consumer electronics, in more than a decade of using Macs and other Apple products, I have yet to throw one away — none of them have stopped working yet.

I don’t know what kind of a man Steve Jobs was because he was intensely private beyond the public image he displayed as CEO of Apple. I’ve heard all of the descriptors: charismatic, dictatorial and so on. I do know that he conceived of things that people didn’t yet know they wanted. That is something special. I do know that he created what has been, at times, the world’s largest company from a business he started in his parent’s garage. That, too, is something special. I know that he made my life better. I’ve accomplished things using Apple computers that I would not have been able to accomplish otherwise. Personally, I’m grateful to him. On a larger scale, I’m grateful that he was an American, and that he kept this nation at the forefront of what the entire world has recognized as some seriously cool technology. But his genius and billions of dollars in the bank couldn’t prevent his passing.

Then the following day, one of my wife’s co-workers passed away, leaving behind a disabled husband and a 13-year-old daughter. The woman was younger than my wife was. And then, my boss at The Observer discovered her own doctor was on medical leave and it was uncertain if he would be able to return. “If he can’t save himself, how can he save me?” she asked with sadness about his fate in her voice.

We are all going to die someday. Across this planet, approximately 100 people die each minute, around 146,000 pass each day. The awareness that we won’t last forever always strikes me whenever I read the comments on news articles in the St. Pete Times or the Tampa Tribune. There are some very angry, vindictive people in the world and, apparently, they enjoy spewing that anger and vindictiveness in news article comments. Why are they so angry?  Where is that anger going to take them?  No one has ever survived life — that anger will mean little in your final hours and afterwards. From my perspective, leaving behind ill will and resentment is not the best way to depart what is for all of us a very short time on Earth.
What would you do if you found out this were your last day?  Would you hug your spouse or your children a little longer?  Would you be nicer or more considerate to others?

One of the final days of school in Mrs. Kaiser’s sixth grade class at West Elementary in Worthington, Minnesota, was a rare and beautiful day in which the frozen memories of the long winter were still fresh, but the promise of the summer to come was unmistakable. Mrs. Kaiser took the entire class out into the schoolyard, sat us all down under the trees, and asked us that very question:  What would we do if we had 24 hours to live?

Most of the boys, being pre-adolescent humanoid-shaped-yet-largely-brainless entities, said they would rob a bank or steal a sports car. When the question came around to Tim Middagh, a somewhat shy and quiet farm kid, his answer made a significant impact on my life:  He said he would plant a tree.

Wow. Even as a pre-adolescent, brainless humanoid entity myself, I knew he had just uttered words of wisdom far beyond his years. The tree would grow for decades, becoming his legacy — something his descendants, generations later, could appreciate. It was one of the most incredible things I had ever heard — it still is.

A year or so after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Steve Jobs, during a commencement address, told the graduating seniors at Stanford University that “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”

Being a celebrity and a billionaire didn’t change the outcome for Steve Jobs. He died, just as you and I will one day die. It is not morbid to say that it could be tomorrow — because it could. We don’t know these things. But if so, how do you want to leave this life?  How do you want your kids to remember you?  Or your wife, or your neighbors?

You have a choice in shaping your own legacy. You can plant a tree simply through your own behavior and interactions with others. You could count the value of a billion dollars in the bank, but I don’t believe the value of the love of your spouse, partner or children can actually be counted.

The saying is that you can’t take it with you. When talking about what is in your bank account or the toys you have, I believe that to be true. When you are dead, and, I’m sorry to report that you will be one day, none of that will have any value. I do believe, however, that you can take the love in your life with you. I believe that love transcends death and I think that is one of the greatest gifts of life. It also means that life doesn’t stop giving. Follow your heart, love with all of your heart and turn the other cheek now and then. I believe you can take that with you, but even if I’m wrong, I know that it will make your days better.

I miss my coworker’s husband; he was a good man. I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet him. Without being aware of it, he pointed to a better course for me. It is a course that will lead to a happier life and beyond for me. I’ll take it with me.
Godspeed to those who have left us. While my bank account may be a little scary now and again, I’m a wealthy man. Although my wallet is thin, my heart is full from those who have shared their lives with me. Yes, I’m at an age where things are being taken away — often painfully — but I treasure them still. They are still in my heart. They have guided my soul to the path that is mine and I am grateful. I have love, which makes me wealthy beyond measure.

Life doesn’t stop giving. Just open your heart and you will know that, too. You have nothing to lose by trying.

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