Two weeks ago, I welcomed Dr. BJ Miller onto my "Unplugged" podcast. He is a hospice and palliative care specialist who treats hospitalized patients with terminal or life-altering illness at UCSF Medical Center. You may have seen his Ted Talk, called "What really matters at the end of life".
During his sophomore year at Princeton, Miller was horsing around with his friends late at night and decided to climb atop a shuttle train. 11,000 volts arced from the power line through the watch on his left hand, and he nearly died. As a result, he lost both legs below his knees as well as his left forearm.
Think about that. One tragic mistake, and his entire life would never be the same.
In the immediate aftermath of literally losing parts of his body, he did a self assessment. And he actually learned something about himself.
"You're bored stiff. You're in pain. There's not much to do. I was literally watching the Gulf War on TV like it was a TV show. [But I asked] what makes a human being a human being? I am still a human being, damnit. That I could tell. And, it helped that people were loving. Nurses, doctors, families, friends--I can't underestimate [their importance]."
Now he's looking to change the perception of disabled people around the world. The words "less than" are frequently used when describing a disabled person, and he doesn't think it's a fair assessment despite in his case having less body parts.
Miller cites how humans get into trouble by constantly comparing themselves to others. Am I tall enough? Am I fast enough? In the sports world, attributes such as these are used to breed competition, but in the rest of life these constant comparisons are exhausting. We always beat ourselves down for not being the people we wish to be.
The most critical component to Miller's recovery was learning how to take the hand he was dealt with and find a way to gain from it. Once he learned the power of perspective, he learned so much about life that he can't even have any regrets. His newfound philosophy allowed him to learn lessons from failure, and even question what failure is at its core.
Because it's not about what happens to you. It's how you deal with what happens to you that defines who you are. As Miller says, "change is not always exotic. It is normal. We're constantly changing whether we know it or not".
Human beings have the incredible ability to change how they look at things. You can zoom in on specific, minute details or zoom out to gain a wider perspective at any time with relative ease.
Miller's thought process has extended not only from valuing life but also from valuing death, which is the subject of his upcoming book A Beginner's Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death; which will be released in 2019.
From his traumatic life experience, he learned that you can respond to the idea of death in two different ways.
The first response would sound a bit like this: "I now understand that time is precious. And the thing that makes it precious is the fact that we die." Facing mortality revs you up to chase your dreams while you can.
The second response sounds more like this: "Pressure's off. We all die. I don't have to push myself so hard, and I can be me. I can let go of some ambition and competitiveness."
Miller uses the first response when he's motivated to get things done, and when he's tired he uses the second response and views death as a relief in a way to decompress.
There's a beauty in life that you don't often appreciate until it's almost over. We need to be glad for life, and be glad that we can even experience pain or any emotion. In the grand scheme of things, we don't get to feel those sorts of things for too long.
So many people realize this on their deathbed, when it's too late for them to change their final chapter. Most people are not prepared for death when it comes because we don't like to think about it or talk about it.
What Miller suggests is to drop the shame of death, and instead aim to gain the power of appreciating what you have while you have it.
I have re-listened to this over and over since we recorded. I was blown away by this conversation. If you are someone that feels stuck in life, I highly recommend taking a listen to learn more about BJ's perspective.
"The best way to die well is to live well."
Song of the Day: "These Are Days" by 10,000 Maniacs
*My latest book; "Living on Purpose: Stories about Faith, Fortune and Fitness that will lead you to an Extraordinary Life", is now available for pre-order! Click here!*