A Life Lesson From a Dying Rockstar

The Rockstar, circa 1976.

It was a surreal interview. Raw and insightful, and it would be his last.

David Letterman, the late-night TV host, had cleared up the whole hour for the show. His old friend Warren Zevon was coming on.

Zevon was a musician that rose to popularity in the 70s and the 80s. He was best known for his thundering melodies and his complicated storytelling. If you heard his music, you would agree that he played in his own way.

On this night, the mood was a little uncertain. It was October 30, 2002.

The seemingly fearless rockstar had recently been diagnosed with mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer, and told he had three months to live. He was stopping by to say goodnight for the last time.

The interview began with his diagnosis: what it meant; how he was doing.

Zevon was in good spirits, and even in the face of mortality, there was an ease with which he spoke. The tone of the talk became surprisingly lighthearted.

It was the sight of a man thoroughly aware of his fate doing whatever the hell he could to enjoy what he had left. He really wasn’t missing a beat.

In between the jokes and the self-deprecation, however, there was still a hint of emotion and self-reflection, and it was no clearer than when the following exchange took place.

Letterman:

“Do you know something about life and death that maybe I don’t know now?”

Zevon:

“Not unless I know how much — how much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.”

Spend Less Time in Your Head

Not much was said in that interview that wasn’t said with a hint of humor. That was part of the charm, and it never took anything away from the real value of the words exchanged.

When elaborating on his comment, Zevon explained that it was about treasuring time. He never saw himself as someone who didn’t stop to appreciate enough moments, but even then, the value in each minute came with a little more urgency in the face of death.

In day to day life, the scarcity of time is rarely a thought at the top of our minds. For most of us, death isn’t something we immediately expect, and given that we don’t expect it, we don’t let it influence how we live.

We continue experiencing most moments at only a fraction of the possible joy we can extract out of them. We go on focusing on where we will be five years from now, and we let the weight of mostly insignificant stress factors consume our energy instead of directing attention to where we are.

None of this is to say that just because almost everything is unimportant in the face of death, we shouldn’t contemplate the future or plan for tomorrow.

The point is that the concept of death should be intellectualized to better understand the meaning of time. It should be used as a reminder to participate and not to let too many moments go to waste.

We may not always have control over what we experience, but we can affect how we experience it. Being fully present is more than half the equation.

Courtesy of Warren Zevon

Attend to the Details

Time is scarce, and it’s valuable. We need more reminders of that.

But that alone isn’t why Zevon’s ingenious response strikes a chord. The real beauty of it is that it highlights the value of the seemingly unimportant things in life. Things we seldom appreciate, but we all recognize.

A sandwich is a common meal. Most of us have thousands of them over the course of our lives. The majority of them don’t make an impression. As long as they don’t taste too unpleasant, they’re another part of our eating routine.

Why is that?

Just because something is a routine or because we’re desensitized to it doesn’t mean that it can’t be great. If you make a sandwich or get one ordered, it will likely have things in it that you like; things that your taste buds enjoy.

If so, shouldn’t it always be thoroughly enjoyed for all that it has to offer?

This may be a cliche thing to dissect, but the simple answer is that it isn’t. It’s a detail in life we have become accustomed to. We see it as common, and it doesn’t make as much noise as a big career plan or something more novel.

That’s an unfortunate reality because there really isn’t a predetermined gap between the common and the uncommon concerning their ability to add happiness to our lives. We just need to look beyond our mental narratives.

Big moments are harder to come by so we presume that in them we’ll find what we’re looking for. Sometimes, we do.

But what we find is often no more amazing than the feeling of intense laughter with a friend. Or the profound beauty in a moment of observed courage. Or the joy we see in the eyes of a kid passionately telling a story.

There’s a lot of neglected happiness hiding in the little things. Know to look.

All You Need to Know

Warren Zevon defied the odds and lived for 11 months after that interview.

In the face of his fight with death, three of his world will live on:

“Enjoy every sandwich.”

They don’t solve the mystery of life or give you a guide for how to live it. They just remind you to stop and really look around every once in a while.

We live much of our lives like our time isn’t limited. It’s a mindset that keeps us focused on everything except where we are. It cheapens many of the simple moments that should make us feel alive.

That’s why death is an important intellectual tool. It’s a reminder that each minute has far more value than is commonly extracted out of it. It’s a reason to experience richness by more actively participating in actually living.

It engages you to fully appreciate the little, often overlooked, joys that life has to offer. Things we find in the details. The things that are relatively common, yes, but no less extraordinary.

A kind smile from a stranger. Randomly hearing a favorite song. The works.

Realistically, it’s not possible to be constantly engaged in the present. By design, we have to think about the future, plan for it, and respond to its demands. That’s okay. This is just about moderation and balance.

It’s a tiny reminder that may just create a few ripples of positivity in your life.


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