To Get the Most Out of Life, Dance

There’s a lyric in the moving Lee Ann Womack song I Hope You Dance that states the following:

“Tell me who wants to look back on their youth and wonder where those years have gone?”

Check out Lee Ann Womack’s moving video about how we should live our lives.

Time marches on. Sometimes, we become so immersed in our careers and lives, we fail to recognize the passage of time. It hits us when we look at old photos, and realize how much time has passed.

Ever dive into the deep end of a pool? The further down you go the more pressure you feel. It’s from the weight of all that water above you. Descend to the bottom of the shallow end and there’s much less weight. If you think about it, swimming under water is the perfect metaphor for life.

Swimming further and deeper

When we are young, we tip our toes in the water. We cautiously try new things, usually under the protective eyes of our parents. They act as our lifeguards.

With confidence and a few years under our belts, we learn to tread water and swim. We discover how to risk a bit. We hold our breaths and venture under water. Not unlike the experience of attending a new school. Or giving our first class presentation.

With life experience and some maturity, we begin to swim further from the shallow end. The lifeguards still eye us, but with less trepidation. We feel the freedom of swimming further and deeper. Much like going off to college. Or starting that first big job.

When I was a kid, I had a buddy whose parents belonged to a private swim club. I was often invited, during the summer months, to join them.

At the club, kids were required to pass a swim test before they were allowed to venture into the deep end or use the diving board. My buddy was braver than me. He took the test, passed, and soon was waving to me from the diving board. It took me months. But one day, I went for it.

Passing that swim test was a lot like earning a diploma from high school or college. It opened a door for me. I was now allowed to swim in the deep end. Like an adult.

Over time, swimming in the deep end becomes routine. It loses its specialness. Like a career you worked hard to succeed in, sometimes you reach a level of ambivalence. Maybe even boredom. And that’s when it can get dangerous.

That’s when you run the risk of drowning.

The weight of regrets

Swimming to the bottom of the shallow end is easier. Less weight above us. Less responsibilities and worries. But swimming through the currents of the deep end is different. There’s a lot of weight above us. The weight of regrets. Aging. Health challenges. Divorce. Loss.

The celebrated American novelist David Wallace Foster clearly swam in the deep end of life. Educated at Amherst College, he majored in english and philosophy.

David Wallace Foster’s senior thesis was in modal logic. He was a deep thinking guy.

Writer Alexander Nazaryan wrote in Newsweek magazine that Foster was a “turbulent genius.” He struggled mightily with depression. Yet in a commencement speech, Foster warned against disillusionment, urging us to embrace compassion, mindfulness and existentialism.

David Wallace Foster navigated the currents far below the surface of the deep end, but his exquisite mind was unable to reconcile the pain. The weight of all that water. And so, at 46 years old, he hanged himself. He drowned in the deep end of life.

The four most important buoys

Writer Alexander Nazaryan, in a Newsweek article, mentioned the Soviet-born poet Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky said to a graduating Dartmouth class that “a substantial part of what lies ahead of you is going to be claimed by boredom.”

Much of life contains amazing moments, like marriage and children and career milestones. But a great deal of life contains mundane routine. Commutes. Meetings. Obligations. Boredom. These things reflect the weight of water above you, in the deep end.

If we are to surface safely from the deep waters of life, we must rely on certain buoys. They are life lines. They literally lift us up.

These are the four most important buoys:

Health- Take care of yourself. You can’t last long in the water if you’re unhealthy. And you’ll be no good to other swimmers in distress.

Family- Who will be there to hand you a towel when you emerge from cold waters? Who will swim with you? Family are the buoys in life that help keep us afloat.

Passion- You need something beyond family that you love and really care about. If you don’t have that, the will to work your way back to the surface may wane. You’ll drown in the mundane routines of life.

Faith- Believing in something bigger than yourself can uplift you. Having faith that your life has purpose and meaning makes a huge difference. Especially when the demons of doubt, despair and uncertainty pay you a visit.

Some find solace in their religious faith. For others, it’s in their spiritual sense of connection. Still others find faith in the natural order and science. Whatever the source, connecting to it can tether you to hope and meaning.

Don’t let boredom, routine and regrets weigh you down. Passion (for your art, your cause, your charity or faith) is what will help you stay afloat.

The vicissitudes of time

Aging is just like swimming in the deep end of the pool. We acquire the skills to dive and explore new depths. But as we go deeper, we feel the weight of all that water above us. It’s akin to the past. All the years chasing us.

The struggles and challenges in life may shape our character, but they come with a cost. We grow wiser, but sometimes more cynical and joyless, too.

My father often said this about aging:

“Our bodies betray us in the end.”

Stiff joints, arthritis, bad backs and dropping skin seem inevitable. Not to mention illnesses. Such indignities are bound to make us cranky.

Emotional discomfort often comes with aging, too. Loved ones pass on. Careers wind down. Youth has passed, and we start to feel a bit forgotten, irrelevant and inconsequential.

The question is, how do we deal with all of this? How do we craft a good life amidst the vicissitudes of time? How do we avoid drowning in the deep end of life?

Why beauty matters

Like a lot of people, I had my struggles. I wrestled with doubts about my law enforcement career. I feared that I settled, and abandoned my dream of becoming an artist and writer.

I did a lot of soul searching, trying to figure out what life was all about. Raised a Catholic, I read C.S.Lewis and talked faith with Jesuit monks. I read the books of leading atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, as well as other philosophical explorations.

For me, I continually lean back toward faith. I’m moved by the order of the universe and inherent beauty of life. I sense the ineffable presence of God.

I have non believing friends who eloquently dismiss my persistent sense of a grand design. Wishful thinking, they say, of a person uncomfortable with mortality. Perhaps.

My instinct tells me that life is not purposeless and morally relative. The power of love, the natural order, and presence of beauty hint at more. I’ve always felt it.

Do yourself a favor and watch Roger Scruton’s amazing documentary “Why Beauty Matters.” It’s partly an indictment of the abdication of beauty in modern art and architecture. But it also explores the divine nature of beauty.

Mankind has always been drawn to beauty. Sunsets, flowers, ocean surf and towering mountains. We embrace music, literature and art because they help us feel things. They remind us that we are alive. That we are not alone. This is the beauty of the creative arts.

Beauty matters because it reflects the very best of life. Seeking and savoring more beauty in our lives can serve as a fifth buoy to help keep us afloat.

Peace and tranquility will return once more

In the end, we must all form our own life philosophy. Whether we embrace a religious/spiritual faith or humanist view, we have to get up and face each day. We have to equip ourselves to navigate the deep waters of life, and make it back to shore.

We are not alone. Many came before us. Some of them left behind great examples of human dignity, grace, elegance and beauty.

Consider Annelies Marie “Anne” Frank, a teenage victim of the Holocaust. Despite all the loss and horrors in her life, she penned the following into her diary:

“I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

Or take Charles Darwin, who wrote:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

I hope you dance

There will be hot days. Times when you’ll want to cool off and refresh. So dive into that pool of life and swim. Venture into the deep end when you’re ready. But equip yourself.

Be smart about it. Remember the important buoys of health, family, passion, faith and beauty. Do that, and you’ll avoid drowning in the deep end of life. Instead, you’ll brave the deep waters and emerge. Refreshed, invigorated and alive.

Most importantly, I hope you dance. Life, existence and this amazing earth are all such magnificent gifts. This is one prom you don’t want to sit through.

When we are young it feels like it will last forever. The stages unfold. From the joys of childhood to adolescence, our first kiss, college, careers, love, marriage, children, passionate pursuits, retirement, the twilight years and eventually Shakespeare’s “sleep of death.” What dreams may come, indeed.

Unlike Dylan Thomas’s guidance that we “do not go gentle into that good night,” I intend to embrace Lee Ann Womack’s advice. I will listen to beautiful music.

I will dance. I will give faith a fighting chance. I will cherish the beauty in life. Then, when the celestial chariot arrives for me and I finally reunite with my father and loved ones long past, I will go gently.

For I have lived, loved and danced.

And that is enough.

Before you go

I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint landscapes and write about life. Get on my free email list here.