Does it take a death to learn what a life is worth?

Today is April 2 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “does it take a death to learn what a life is worth?” The question stems from the 1980 song “Of Missing Persons” by Jackson Browne released as part of his Hold Out album. The song "Of Missing Persons" was written for Inara George, the daughter of Lowell George (formerly of the band Little Feat), a songwriting collaborator and longtime friend of Jackson Browne's who died a year prior at 34 years of age. The phrase "of missing persons" was derived from a line in a Little Feat song, "Long Distance Love.”

For those navigating the chaos the answer to the question needs to be ‘no,’ it does not take a death to learn what a life is worth. Any successful navigation of the chaos involves an innate understanding that every life, while limited in time, holds tremendous value for each person. Frequent reminders, however, can help while navigating the chaos. This is especially true for those who work such long hours. The question you have to ask yourself then is: 'are you aware of the price you are paying?'

Americans are working longer days with less vacation and starting their retirement later. In today's chaotic global marketplace Americans are working longer hours than at any time since statistics have been kept and are now working longer than anyone else in the industrialized world. In 1999, more than 25 million Americans - 20.5 percent of the total workforce - reported that they worked at least 49 hours a week, and 11 million of those said they worked more than 59 hours a week. When asked to describe their plans for retirement, 27 percent of Americans said they will “keep working as long as possible,” a 2015 Federal Reserve study found. Another 12 percent said they don’t plan to retire at all. But we pay a price for working so many hours.

Personal commitments, professional obligations, and a variety of other issues can easily distract us from the present moment. Time has a way of clouding our ability to ask the question “does it take a death to learn what a life is worth?’ It is only when people are faced with their own mortality does an answer appear. Such was the case for Norma Jean Bauerschmidt and Eugene O’Kelly.

Bauerschmidt was diagnosed with uterine cancer and told by her doctor that surgery, radiation and chemotherapy were unlikely to treat the illness. After the doctor asked her what she wanted to do Norma Jean, "a tiny woman at 101 pounds and under five-feet tall, looked the young doctor dead in the eye and with the strongest voice she could muster, said, 'I’m 90-years-old, I’m hitting the road.'"


For the next 12 months Ms. Bauerschmidt set off from Michigan with her son Tim, daughter-in-law Ramie and their dog Ringo. They drove their RV nearly 13,000 miles and slept in over 75 different locations in 32 states. As Ramie wrote “Over these past 12 months, all of us have learned so much about living, caring, loving and embracing the present moment; no matter where we are, when asked where her favorite spot has been on this trip, Norma replied “Right here!” In August 2016 Ms. Bauerschmidt began hospice care in the town of Friday Harbour, San Juan Island, Washington - her final stop - when her health began to deteriorate. She died a few weeks later.

Eugene O'Kelly only realized the price he was paying for the many hours he was working once diagnosed with an inoperable brain cancer. At the time of his diagnosis Eugene O’Kelly, a 53-year-old chief executive of the accounting firm KPMG, wrote Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life. O’Kelly died on September 10, 2005, but in the months leading up to his passing, he discovered the world around him and connected with nature, time, and loved ones as never before. In short, death increased his self-awareness on an entirely new level.

During his final months, he would sometimes invite a friend or acquaintance to take a stroll in the park. Such a stroll, according to O’Kelly “was sometimes not only the final time we would take such a leisurely walk together, but also the first time.” American journalist Normal Counsins noted “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies within us while we live.” Eugene O’Kelly recognized what was dying within him while he was alive and transformed his life.

American playwright Tennessee Williams noted “Life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going.” Are you able to catch life as it moves in front of you? Does it take a death to learn what a life is worth? As Jackson Brown wrote in the last line of “Of Missing Persons”

May you always see what your life is worth