“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
– Marcel Proust
A Journey of Discovery
I recently went home to Canada to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday. I have lived in Australia for 35 years and have made many journeys home. Every visit is different and every farewell is sad and difficult.
This goodbye, however, was profoundly different — it seemed more of a hello and a connection than a goodbye and wrenching away. I now realize the difference was that, probably for the first time ever, I felt truly connected to my mother in a way that made the goodbye almost celebratory. We had finally found each other – a journey that had taken a lifetime.
A New Perspective
My mother gave me a gift – a lesson, a reminder – that change is always possible. Her shift in perspective opened my eyes, and we connected in a way I would never have felt possible. She demonstrated by her words and actions that we all have the capacity to profoundly shift our vision of the world, no matter our age.
Being with her during this visit, I felt I was in the presence of someone who was accepting, compassionate (to herself and others), grateful, and living in the moment. As a psychologist, these are all concepts I try to incorporate into my own life and encourage my clients to embrace.
My mother didn’t have a therapist, she didn’t read a book on mindfulness, nor did she listen to a podcast on self-compassion. She just looked death in the eye and made a decision to change her perspective – she chose to see the world through new eyes.
A Meeting with Death
Two years ago my mother was in the hospital with a poor prognosis – at the very least long-term care and quite possibly death. Against the odds, she surprised the doctors and nurses, who had held little hope for her. She ‘came back to life’, celebrated her 90th birthday, and is now actively participating in every activity at her retirement home.
My mother told me that she knew she was near death in the hospital, and how she ‘was being pulled away and had to really struggle to get back’.
Mom described this meeting with death as a moment when she made a ‘deal’ with herself to ‘fight to come back.’ She promised herself if she found the strength she needed to find her way back, she ‘was going to live life differently and not waste time worrying’.
Today I would describe my mother as self-compassionate, grateful and accepting – living life moment by moment. These are not words I would have ever used before in relation to my mother.
Most of my life I experienced my mother as anxious, lacking confidence, worrying, and continually stressed about what was going to happen in the future. She was always loving, supportive, and encouraging, but she seemed ungrounded, fearful, unpredictable, and really not ‘present’.
A 90th Birthday
It has been nearly two years since mom made the decision to ‘return’ to life and consciously live life differently. Her 90th birthday celebration was more than an anniversary of her birth – it was a new beginning.
Mom told me she felt contented – a word I would have never imagined her saying or feeling. But now, it feels like exactly the right word. Numerous times on this visit I looked at her and she looked twenty years younger, happier, and truly engaged in what was going on.
Parting Is Sweet Sorrow
This time, when we said goodbye, we still cried, but it was warm and connected – full of feelings of gratitude and love, not fear and anxiety. My mother and I were present in that painful moment of separation – together, holding each other equally in the embrace. It was as if we both knew that each of us was content with our visit, accepting of the separation, and deeply grateful for each other.
For most of my life, I have lived in anxiety and fear of losing my mother. By choosing to change her perspective from anxious worrying about the future and sadness about the past to living life moment by moment, she has given me a gift. Instead of fear and anxiety about losing her, I feel gratitude for her life and happiness, enjoying the moments we have.
Life Is Right Here, Right Now
My mother has taught me so much in life. But this lesson about living right here, right now, with compassion, acceptance, and gratitude is the greatest lesson she could ever teach me. She told me that if she is pulled toward the darkness again, she won’t fight to come back. She is satisfied and content with how she chose to live this last chapter. I am so inspired by her clarity and strength.
A Choice – A New Perspective
My mother wasn’t in therapy. She didn’t read books about mindfulness, self-compassion, and gratitude, or participate in 12-step programs. Facing death, she found she could be her own teacher and decide what really mattered. She chose to change her perspective in a radical way, bringing joy to not only herself but to those who love her and others who are just getting to know her.
Now, my mother says she is happy to see the sun in the morning, to have a good cup of coffee, to eat a whole block of chocolate, to hear some music, and connect with her numerous friends and loving family. She still loves buying beautiful clothes and never leaves her room without her lipstick carefully applied. I would also add she is fearless, funny, inspiring, and a much better listener.
We Can All Change Our Perspective and Choose to Look at Things with New Eyes
Often it takes a critical or terminal illness, a tragedy, or a 90th birthday to wake us up to what really matters to us. If we feel life ending or changing, we get a chance to reflect on what could have been. For some of us, like my mother, we may even get a chance to live life differently, bringing more joy to ourselves and others.
We have the capacity right now to change our perspective, to live with acceptance and gratitude in the moment. We don’t need to wait to look death in the eye to choose how we want to live. We can all take one step today.
How Can You Live More in the Present?
- Check in every day with the 5 senses – what do I see, hear, taste, touch, smell?
- Try more acceptance, less struggle
- Give yourself a hug – try a little self-compassion
- Learn to meditate, practice mindfulness
- Take a walk
- Reach out to a friend
- Don’t wait until you are looking death in the eye to live in the present
A Writing Exercise
In my therapy and writing workshops, I encourage people to experience the power of writing to help us heal, get a fresh perspective, and re-frame our life experience. One exercise that might help you re-frame the way you see the world is the following exercise on perspective.
What Have I Learnt in 90 Years?
Imagine today is your 90th birthday and you are going to write a journal entry about what mattered in your life, what you learnt looking back on your life. (Date it with the ‘real’ date of your 90th birthday.)
- Write quickly, use a pen (not a computer) and fill at least one A4 page.
- Don’t edit, don’t think too much. Just keep the pen moving, even if you are repeating yourself.
- Use present tense.
- Keep repeating the lines – I know…. I know…
- Before you write, close your eyes and imagine yourself. Where are you? What are you doing on your 90th birthday?
Today is my 90th birthday and looking back on life I know what is important…
This short exercise may help you access what is important in life, what you can, and what you can’t control. For all of us, it is a chance to reflect before we face the end of our lives and choose to look at life from another perspective.
Open your eyes to living a fuller life, right here, right now.
This is my first blog post and I have enjoyed writing it. I hope you have found something useful in reading it. As a psychologist, I learn so much from my clients – about strength, about fearlessness, about pain, and about how to live life courageously, honestly, and joyfully.
I would like to share some of the wisdom I have learnt from all of the teachers in my life – my clients, my friends, my family, my therapists, and my cab drivers… I hope to write more about acceptance, self-compassion, gratitude, mindfulness, and courage in future blog posts as a gesture of gratitude to all of my past, present, and future teachers.