On Sunday the singer-song writer Leonard Cohen turned 80. While his friends and family were lighting the candles on his cake, Mr. Cohen was lighting a cigarette. A year ago he promised that when he turned 80 he would start smoking again after thirty years. Why not? If you’ve made it this far, you can take a big drag and blow caution to the wind.
Leonard Cohen’s very public decision resonated with a lot of people—including me.
Just a few decades ago people didn’t routinely live into their 80s. My mother lived till she was 82. My father is 95 and still mows the lawn (though he’s switched to a rider mower). My generation—the Boomers—are presented with more health information than we can process. If we are “smart” we will take pills and dietary supplements to stave off every dread effect of aging and live as long as we possibly can.
So when the Hallelujah minstrel says, “Enough,” a lot of people stop for a moment. Maybe he’s on to something.
We start thinking: I’m doing all this for what? On the hope that maybe someday I’ll enjoy a healthy and blissful future? What about the present—what about now?
I don’t mean that lighting a Camel is the ticket to bliss (though many like Leonard Cohen may beg to differ). And I’m not counseling a devil-may-care approach to the future. Some sensible measure of planning for tomorrow is clearly wise (I’m still flossing, though I hate it every night). It’s just—in planning for the future, are you still anchored in the present?
Leonard Cohen’s decision echoes in my head. Maybe it reverberates in your soul, too. We excel at planning for life but struggle to live it. We are afraid to die because we are not sure that we have ever really lived.
So, take your statins and your beta blockers, your fish oil and your probiotics. Hit the gym three times a week and abstain from whatever vices may unnumber your days. But ask yourself the Leonard Cohen question: Is most of my energy for life going to secure an imagined future, or am I living the life God is giving me today and only today?
Do I really want to eat broccoli today so I can live an extra 3 years on the back end in Depends? I dunno, but I’m sure it will seem more alluring down the road than it does today. Taking care of myself today is where it’s at…and good chance that leads to an extra few years on the back end whether I like it or not. To each their own but I’ll take cookie dough ice cream over Camels all day long.
I remember a friend who sat in one of the rooms with us for several years and then she said one day, I have cancer. We watched her die. She kept coming to meetings and we watched her waste away. Her name was Mary.
And I’ll never forget what she said at meetings. If I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times: I want to die sober.
She had this sense about life–her sobriety was not an escape from pleasure but an act of self-love, an embracing of life. She didn’t want to hurt herself, even a little bit, even on her last day on earth.
I’m thinking of Mary today. She got her wish.
Actually she’s the only person I know who had a funeral before she died. It was here in Evanston, at Lake Street Church. The place was packed. There was music, laughter and lots of stories about Mary. What a woman.