Witnessing tragedy can give you more perspective than you asked for

Whether it’s making bucket lists, achieving goals, or living large, make sure what you spend your life on matters most to you

(Kristen Frier)

This article contains graphic imagery which may be upsetting to some readers.

I saw it on a short drive home from the grocery store. I knew it had happened recently because there were no ambulances yet. Two cars: One on the sidewalk, flipped onto its back, and the other, the entire hood of the car smashed inward past the front seats.

There he was, spilling onto the crosswalk. A well-dressed man, at least from the neck down. He was just a torso now, slumped onto the road, head missing from his body. His blood streaked the pavement in long thick red ribbons in every direction.

Sirens in the distance quickly grew closer and closer as I drove past, mouth hanging open, unsure of how to react and how to continue my otherwise very regular Sunday evening.

I wondered about where that man was going when it happened, about his final thoughts, plans he might have been meaning to get around to, goals left unachieved, dreams he had yet to fulfill.

It took several hours for the shock to wear off. It was a strange sensation, to gain an immense and acute gratitude for every heartbeat that kept my blood flowing, every breath that filled my lungs.

I thought about all the times I’ve driven recklessly, about how narrowly I’ve avoided being that headless body on the pavement. If there was anything positive to take from witnessing something so traumatic, it was awareness and perspective.

The Insight

The gift the headless man on the pavement gave to me is the liberation of knowing that any day I wake up could be my last. Before I am in his place, I’ve decided to hold myself accountable for any regrets I may feel as I take my final breaths. I’ve decided to play things less on the safe side, to live more boldly, to set goals, to fulfill some desires so that I can go more willingly when my time comes.

Ironically, I used to find bucket lists a bit cheesy and cliché, but that was back when I had a much more flippant attitude towards on my own mortality. As the early Chinese philosopher Confucius put it, “We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.” Besides, bucket lists are only as cheesy and cliché as you make them. It’s the concept that’s important.

However it works for you is fine, but I have grown to understand that it’s important to reflect on one’s own life so far, and for that reflection to inform how you want the rest of your life to play out. This process can look different for everyone, so just go with whatever makes sense to you. Start by taking inventory about things you are proud to have achieved and happy to have experienced. There’s no right or wrong way to do this.

Personally, so far, I’m proactively struggling to achieve my dream of being a professional musician. I started a band with my best friends. We have been signed to a well-established record label. I’ve seen some killer shows, as well as some of my lifelong favourite artists, including Conor Oberst, Cage The Elephant, and King Gizzard. I’ve seen a show at the Gorge Amphitheatre, one of the most beautiful music venues in the world. I’m nearly finished my undergraduate degree, majoring in creative writing. I’ve transitioned to a completely plant-based and cruelty-free diet. I am there for my friends and family when they need me. I’ve been to five countries, including Japan, Mexico, and Costa Rica. I’ve learned and actively practice effective meditation.

The purpose of this list is not to chastise you for not having done “enough.” The purpose is so you can make your own and gain a more objective awareness of what might be missing before you begin to fill in those blanks. It’s the start of setting out to live a life with less regret, fewer stones unturned, and challenges met.

For example, what my list tells me is that I would like to travel more, but not just in order to have a bigger number of countries under my belt. While others may get more fulfillment out of seeing as many places as possible, I personally would find it much more fulfilling to visit fewer countries but settle into them long enough that they might end up feeling like home before I leave. In my future, I want to fully experience what it feels like not just to be a tourist, but to be a resident.

The Bucket List

When an event such as a car crash forces death to the forefront of our consciousness, one cannot help but wonder how the victims would feel about the life they had lived so far. After seeing the accident, I started indiscriminately writing down things I want to do before I die in order to feel more content with the life I’m currently living. Here is a list of what ended up on that page: Make my entire living from writing and performing music. Live in Perth and either Madrid or Barcelona Learn to speak Spanish fluently. Open a sanctuary for rescued animals. Keep learning and growing as a human being always.

With those milestones under my belt, I feel like I could move on to whatever awaits after death without any burning regrets and be at peace with the life I lived. Now, all I need to do is make sure I work every day towards achieving these goals. Sometimes that involves making hard decisions, such as stepping away from a stable and decently paying job, or moving away from home to a new city, both of which I will be doing within the next few months.

Change is always a scary prospect, even when you’re aware of how much it is likely to benefit you. When I have reservations, I remember that uncertainty is one of the first steps towards personal growth. When I get lazy, I remember that man on the road, and ask myself if I’d have been proud of how I acted in this moment, on this day, and usually that’s enough to make me take the next step forward.

To point out the painfully obvious, everyone is going to die someday. But not everyone really lives first. Really living takes nerve, grit, and courage. Ultimately, decide for yourself what is really worth your time on this earth, because every moment that passes, you have a little bit less of it. The clock’s ticking. Make it happen.