Wake up call

It’s always someone else.

We all secretly believe we’ll live forever, that we have all the time in the world to realize our dreams and transform our lives into triumphant pursuits of romance, happiness, and success. We move without purpose. We get sidetracked. We procrastinate. We spend so much time waiting around for a someone or something new to change our lives. We don’t necessarily let life pass us by; rather, we float on like plankton, passively drifting in and out of the currents, never reaching forth our arms or kicking our legs to move any quicker than necessary.

But it is necessary. Tomorrow is not promised.

On Aug. 5, 2010, a tragic bus accident took the life of a 15-year-old girl named Jessica Brinker. Jessica was a member of the St. James High School Red Regiment marching band. The entire band was on their way to Six Flags in order to celebrate the completion of their band camp.

I saw the story on the news and felt more vulnerable than I ever had. This girl was my age, shared my hobbies. And she was dead. Killed by a freak accident. This was real.

The Spartan Regiment was scheduled to hold a car wash that weekend in order to raise money for instrument repairs and maintenance costs for the upcoming season. After we heard this news, however, we decided to give the money we raised to the St. James band as a way of supporting them after their tragedy.

We raised more than $2,000 at the car wash. Tears welled up in my eyes when I was handed a $100 check from a complete stranger. The whole town came together for one individual and I realized what an incredible community I get to be a part of.

This wasn’t the only realization I had that day though. I kept thinking about Jessica Brinker and how similar we were. That could have been me. That could still be me. Any day, an entirely random tragic accident could take my life.

Nearly every time I perform with marching band, I wear a “J” shaped pin under my uniform to carry Jessica Brinker’s spirit with me and to remind me of how lucky I am to be a part of such an incredible activity, but also to be alive.

Tomorrow is not promised to any of us. It always seems to be someone else whose life comes to an end due to unfortunate circumstances. One day, however, it will be us. Until that day, of which none of us know the exact date, we must seize and maximize every single precious second.

You have to find something that you love to do. You have to get interested in the world around you. Any second, it could all be gone. Try playing guitar. Try reading Shakespeare. Try painting landscapes. Try gardening. Try long-distance cycling. Try anything. Find something that you love and do it every day.

One of my passions is listening to commencement speeches for intense bursts of inspiration and motivation. I found one given by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs to the Class of 2005 graduates from Stanford University. His words are especially haunting now, due to his untimely death in October of 2011. He says:

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

“About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

“I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

“This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Do what you love. This has been my mantra since Jessica Brinker’s death. Do what you love, every single day, and not one minute of life will be wasted. You have to do what you love. At all costs.



If you’re dying to confess your love to me or tell me you hate my guts, don’t be afraid to contact me. You can email me at [email protected], or tweet at @sweeeeeens. Thanks for reading.


( You can read the entire transcript of Jobs’ excellent speech at http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html, or watch the video at http://youtu.be/UF8uR6Z6KLc )