My friend Keith ruptured his aorta a few years ago. The bleeding was slow enough and the medical attention he received was timely enough that he survived, despite the odds. If not for outstanding doctors, strength of will (his and his wife’s), and good fortune, we would've said goodbye to Keith years ago.
My mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer about five years ago. It was a large tumor and she was given a 50-50 chance of survival. It could've gone either way. But due to her indomitable spirit, the support of her loving husband, and modern medical technology, Carole is still with us.
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in her head (in her freaking head!), point blank, by a deranged assassin. Yet she not only survived, but is growing stronger each day.
Keith, Carole, and Gabby are all living on bonus time.
It is heartwarming to learn about people who have cheated death. The heroes of these stories have each acquired a renewed appreciation for life, having come so close to losing it. In some sense don't we envy these folks? Don't we almost wish for our own near-death experience, so that we could stop taking life for granted, so that we would have legitimate grounds to cherish each and every day?
I'm here to say that we can all breathe this rare air without battling cardiac failure, overcoming cancer, or surviving a shot to the head. If you think about it, each of us is already operating on bonus time. Here’s what I mean.
First, every single one of our direct ancestors had to successfully survive their own birth, avoid childhood diseases and maladies, live to childbearing age, mate and produce an offspring before dying of disease, starvation, war, or attack by sabertooth tiger. And except for the last 50 or 100 years, all of our ancestors did this without the benefit of sterile operating rooms, Facebook, or Prozac. Consider the odds that each of our family lines has overcome, generation after generation, to win this tournament of life. Although we may not have cheated death as palpably as Keith, Carole, or Gabby, we have cheated nonexistence by a considerable margin.
Second, think about all of the people that could have been born instead of you, but never were. What if your parents had not met one another, but had fallen in love with (or at least had sex with) somebody else instead? The person that is you, with your unique genome, would never have been born. What if your mother, or her mother, or her mother, had come down with a headache (real or imagined) and hadn't been in the mood to procreate at the very second that she did. Because so much of who we are is the result of the random merging of genes from each parent at the split second of conception, if this moment had been delayed at all then some other child with different hair, a different personality, and maybe even a different gender would've been born instead of you. In the sense that you exist and all these other potential people don’t, you have been profoundly fortunate. Congratulations.
Third, think about all the close calls that you've survived, the first of which was your own traumatic and risky childbirth. Then think about how many times you’ve stumbled but caught yourself; how many times you almost crossed the street but at the last minute noticed a speeding car out of the corner of your eye; or on how many occasions you overcame any number of teenage and early adulthood risky decisions involving alcohol, drugs, and other dangerous behaviors. Frankly, thinking back, I'm amazed that I've eluded death for as long as I have.
By simply being alive enough to read this blog post you've overcome greater challenges than heart disease, cancer, or gunshot wounds to the head. You shouldn't be here. No one of us, by any statistical analysis, should be here at all. But we are. There is no need to wait for your own story of extraordinary survival. It’s already been written.
Give yourself permission to embrace that same zest for life that Keith, Carole, and Gabby already have. Stop sweating the small stuff. Stop giving a damn what everybody thinks about you. Most importantly, stop putting off your dreams for another day. Start living them today, because the splendid adventure that is your life is a gift that so many other potential people never got the chance to experience. If nothing else, don't we owe it to them to make the most of our good fortune, to live life to the fullest?
And the size of the dream is not important- climbing all the great peaks in North America or trying to be a more considerate spouse. It doesn't matter. The same principle applies.
When you wake up each day, take stock of how incredibly fortunate you are to be here at all, remind yourself that you're already operating on bonus time, and then act accordingly.
Incidentally, reasons one, two, and three, above (the reasons why each of us are already operating on bonus time), are also appropriate responses to grumblings like “life is unfair,” and “nothing good ever happens to me,” and “what do I have to be thankful for?”
For a humorous and touching story of survival and renewed appreciation for life, watch this video clip.