Lessons from a Dying 94-yr old

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About 6-years ago, I sympathetically befriended an elderly man, a Hungarian holocaust survivor who reminded me of my father. In the sunset of his life at age 88, he had outlived all of his family and, unfortunately, never had any children.   When I met Steven, I was immediately struck by his amazing mind and the depth of his repertoire. I also was saddened by how lonely his life had become. It seems very ironic that a man with so much richness to share had nobody with whom to share it. Over the next 6-years, I spent hours and hours just listening to him speak – some of the most interesting stories I have ever heard. Having survived the holocaust and subsequently living in 4 different countries, you might imagine the topics of discussion.

Today, 6-years after we first wet, Steven’s health has begun to deteriorate. In addition to losing his vision, he injured his hip and no longer can walk. While his mind is still sharp, the quality of his life has diminished greatly. He longer can read or even watch TV and he’s basically sedentary with the support of full-time help.

When we first met, our discussion topics ranged from history and life experiences to business and the stock market. He loved watching CNBC and actively traded stocks. He even bought Facebook stock, despite not completely understanding social media. Money was very important to him and he loved playing the markets, reading the Wall Street Journal from cover to cover daily.

These days, however, his focus has changed dramatically. Reckoning with mortality, he says he’s tired and ready to leave this world. He speaks of death regularly now and hopes he will die soon. I try to change the subject and give him updates on his hockey team, the Rangers, the stock market and other news. He’s no longer is interested and asks me to stop.   Facing the end of his life, his priorities have dramatically changed.

I’ve learned a lot from Steven… and at this stage, I’m perhaps learning the most important thing he could teach me: Death changes one’s perspective completely. When faced with death, the truly important things become clear. And, so much of the ‘other stuff’ that seemed so important, becomes neutral or insignificant.

The Smarter Sooner learning from this is pretty obvious… try and assess your priorities and how you spend your energy daily — while you’re young. Ask yourself important questions NOW: “If you were told that you had 1-month to live, how would you spend the last month and what would you do differently?” “Would you spend more time with friends and family?” “Would you spend less time worrying about other things?   I imagine you, like me, will realize how much time, energy and stress you associate with things that are not truly important in life.  From this, try and modify your focus accordingly.

These are valuable considerations and they help us stay focused on what really matters. I will miss Steven when he passes on, but I will never forget what he taught me.

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