When Minutes Matter, A Reflection on Life's Moments

Toby Campbell, MD, associate professor of oncology and chief of the palliative care program at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center, reflects on what moments really matter in life.


Madison, Wisconsin - With a new year comes an invitation to set goals, make resolutions, or otherwise aspire to change in our life. Sometimes we resolve to make every minute count for something. While this sounds like a wonderful goal, in my work as an oncologist and palliative care physician, I come into daily contact with people who are facing the final days, weeks, or months of their life. These are individuals who may actually be able to count the remainder of their minutes.


Spoiler alert for those of you reading who are not facing a serious illness: dying people often feel the pressure to literally make every minute count and they can find that intensity exhausting rather than inspirational.


To get a sense of it, imagine a moment from your life where a minute mattered: you're late for a meeting and cursing the extra two minutes spent composing an email; you're cramming for an exam and lamenting the preceding evenings spent doing something else instead of studying; you're on a first date with someone you really like and can feel the pressure to make every word and gesture and look count.


Now pause and contemplate trying to give every minute of your life the same level of attention. Does that feel overwhelming?


Let me tell you about Keith, a man with a progressive and debilitating neurological disease which steadily rendered him unable to move, swallow, and breathe while leaving his mind intact (his was like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease).


Recently, I wrote about Keith in a piece for The Journal of the American Medical Association called "When Minutes Matter." Keith told me, using three breaths, "minutes (breath) matter, (breath) it's exhausting." Armed with the knowledge that his final minute was rapidly approaching, he was worn out by the need to make every minute count. Keith longed for a few minutes that didn't matter so he might have a chance to relax without feeling guilt or regret.


My work teaches me that paying attention to every breath is neither a reasonable nor even aspirational life goal. Paying attention and being present at times is as important as the moments in our lives in which we lose track of time or get lost in a moment. We should be as content paying attention to a moment, like listening to the birds tweet in the morning or an important conversation with our child, as losing ourselves in a book or a movie, a long shower, or a leisurely breakfast.


We need space for our mind to process and to rest in order for us to function at an optimum. Being present in a moment is wonderful and fulfilling but requires intense effort, and my work has taught me that both focus and rest are vital to happiness.


Perhaps our life, our spiritual and intellectual force, is like a fire in the fireplace: at times burning hot and other times smoldering but always needing to be tended and nurtured. Judy Sorum Brown's poem "Fire" reminds us that the space around the logs is as important as the logs themselves to allow a fire to burn hot. I suggest we give attention to both our presence and absences in life, being mindful that we need the space of a moment that doesn't matter.

Date Published: 01/12/2016

News tag(s):  toby c campbellcancer

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