Saturday, July 9, 2011

Feature: 'Til It's Gone' - Biscuit Magazine

For issue 10, read online.

Another glossy silver sticker and a tally mark on the back jacket; I was in the lead. ‘Bucket lists’ of things to do, see or taste in your lifetime are meant as more of a guide than a red flag to a wasted life. When my partner and I discovered 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die in 2008 we took the challenge to heart. That holiday we read our way through scores of classics, marking them with colour-coded stickers. The phase eventually passed, but a few weeks ago I rediscovered the list. I can’t recall ever reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but there it was – my trademark silver dot beside the title. It seems I was so concerned with adding notches to my bookcase that I didn’t even make time to enjoy the conquest. Certainly, people are capable of extraordinary feats and insights when faced with their own mortality, but (sorry, Tolstoy) I don’t think skimming over War and Peace counts among them.

Terminally-ill fifteen-year-old Alice Pyne saw an outpouring of support when she posted her ‘bucket list’ online last month. Her blog gained media attention almost overnight, and already thousands of dollars have been donated to charities on her behalf, and businesses have stepped up to help fulfil her wishes. The UK teenager recognizes some of her goals (such as travelling to Kenya) will never be achieved, but the simplicity of most of her dreams is positively moving. Simple things many would take for granted, or even bemoan, are for her a source of hope and fulfilment. Sure, we think it would be nice to have a family portrait taken, to go whale watching, or perhaps stay in a caravan, but life always seems to get in the way. Until, of course, it doesn’t. Alice’s story seems to have struck a chord because she’s realised so young something it takes most of us a lifetime to learn.

While our neighbours in Christchurch are facing one disaster after another, Japan is struggling to come to terms with their biggest catastrophe since the Hiroshima bombings, four months after the first tremors hit. When the survivors are finally able to rebuild their lives, many will choose radically different foundations. Around a quarter of disaster victims experience what’s known as post-traumatic growth – positive changes following adversity. This isn’t to say their suffering is lessened, but that they foster a renewed sense of purpose, spirituality and a greater appreciation of their life and relationships. Perhaps this explains CNN reports that the number of people seeking partnership and marriage in Japan has dramatically increased since the March 11 disasters, creating a sharp spike in sales of engagement and wedding rings. Bride-to-be Maki Maruta was quoted as saying “the disasters reminded me the importance of family. It’s so important to have someone who is precious to you.”

UK researcher Laura Blackie recently conducted a study where she asked participants to reflect on their own death and monitored their behaviours. She concluded in Psychological Science that thoughts of mortality, “can be one of the best gifts we have in life, motivating us to embrace life and embrace goals that are important to us”. But often when we’re isolated from disaster, it’s easy for that inspiration to disappear as quickly as the channel is changed to Bargain Hunt repeats.

In the process of writing this article I almost lost my Grandma who, up until that point, hadn’t been on speaking terms with most of my immediate family for reasons I still struggle to comprehend. Differences were put aside on the hospital bed, but now she’s been given the clear bill of health the hostility rages on. While the scare seemed to shake them into a temporary realisation that life is much too short to hold grudges, they’ve been given more time and so, more time to be stubborn. Perhaps it is this same logic that sees many of us put off our biggest aspirations day after day, assuming we always have tomorrow. But if you didn’t, what would you have done differently today?