By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
I remember many years ago, I was treating a 14-year-old girl who was struggling with an eating disorder and depression. In one particular session, we were talking about her hopes, fears, and regrets. (You know, those light, small-talky topics we psychotherapists tend to bring up!) This young girl told me she was afraid that if she kept going the way she was — starving herself and hating her body — that when she died someday, her tombstone would say, “Here lies Jane. She spent her life trying to lose weight.” Having spent the prior decades of my own life lost in food and weight obsession, I related only too well to her fear of wasting precious time worrying about what she eats and how much she weighs.
Not long after that session, I read a poem to this young girl, entitled “The Dash.” If you haven’t yet read this insightful poem, it basically highlights the fact that when we die, our tombstone will have the date of our birth and the date of our death. And in between those two dates is a simple dash. This small punctuation mark represents our entire life.
What will we do with our dash? So often, we live our lives as if we have forever. As if our weight or our wallets are the most important things. Many people spend so much time worrying what others think of them instead of feeling good about themselves and fulfilled in what they are doing. Too many of us live our lives according to society’s rules of competing and achieving, rather than following our own internal guidance and listening to what we truly want and need.
I will never forget the last day at a therapy conference I attended in Hawaii many years ago. I was browsing in a little store on a remote part of one of the islands. A local woman entered the store and the owner who apparently knew her said, “Hey, what have you been up to?” The patron responded, “Anything I want.”
It struck me how many of us do anything but “anything we want.” Granted, I know we have jobs to show up for and children to raise. I am not suggesting we all live on an island and mosey around all day — though not a bad idea from time to time! But I have counseled countless clients who were living lives that did not feel authentic to them. Young teens playing sports that they didn’t even like but were afraid to stop for fear of not living up to their parents’ expectations. Older clients in careers that they hated but who felt they had no other options. One client confessed that she was going to school for a career that her father had pursued and encouraged her to pursue, but one that she was not truly interested in at all.
And then there are those who are afraid to rock the boat in unhappy relationships. Afraid to speak up, afraid to express their needs or feelings, they become trapped in a situation that does not make them feel happy, safe, or satisfied.
Too many of us do things we do not really want to do and avoid the things we truly dream of. Again, I realize we need to put food on the table, pay the bills and do our chores; we can’t all simply follow our every whim, idea, or dream. But we can stop and ask ourselves from time to time if there are things we can do that would make our lives more pleasurable and fulfilling. Or perhaps there are things we can stopdoing that we really don’t feel aligned with. Even small changes can make a big difference. It doesn’t have to be a radical career move or relocation to a remote island!
Unlike my 14-year-old client who was wise beyond her years as she reflected on her tombstone’s inscription, it took me many years to start living my “dash” in a way that feels authentic and fulfilling. For too long, I lived a life that wasn’t truly me.
I sometimes wonder when I hear about someone’s untimely death if they spent their last day feeling fat or skipping breakfast. Were they eating things they really enjoyed and doing things they truly loved? Were they telling the truth in their relationships? Were they living a life that felt authentic to them? Did they think they were enough?
How are you spending your “dash”? Does your life reflect who you really are? Do you fill the hours in your day with people and things that make you smile, pique your interest and open your heart? If not, is there one small thing you could change to move in that direction? See if you can take just a moment now and then at work, school, during your chores or child rearing, and ask yourself: How am I spending my dash?