Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.
—Pope Paul VI
Dutch siblings Sascha and Alexander Pinczowski — ages 26 and 29, respectively — were preparing to board a flight to New York City on March 22. They called their mother, Marjan, who lives in Holland, from the Delta ticket line inside the airport in Brussels before their flight.
While they were on the phone, their mother heard a loud explosion, the sound of shattering glass, and then an abrupt and ominous silence on the other end.
She hoped against hope that her children had survived the blast she’d heard, part of an attack carried out by ISIS terrorists that killed at least 35 innocent people and wounded more than 270. But several days later, Belgian authorities confirmed the tragic news: Sascha and Alexander had died in the blast.
What a horrific experience for the Pinczowskis and for all who suffered death, injury or loss of loved ones in the Brussels attacks! Our hearts and prayers go out to them all. And we instinctively ponder and discuss big questions related to terror attacks, such as why such violence occurs, what can be done about it and whether we will ever enjoy peace — not only in the minimalistic sense of the absence of violence — but in the deeper sense of positive harmony.
But my mind keeps shifting from the overall tragedy in Brussels and those big questions, to the poignant image of the mother and her children on the phone at the time of the blast, and to a smaller, related question:
How different would their last conversation have been had they known how little time they had left?
And as for the rest of us: If you or I died suddenly, what important things would remain unsaid in our lives?
I hope the Pinczowskis and their loved ones said all the important things they needed to say to one another. I hope that each of us does, as well. But we will more likely do that if the things that need to be said are clear in our minds.
Toward that end, I offer the following working checklist of important things we should think seriously about saying today, absent a compelling reason to wait until tomorrow or beyond. (You will surely think of items I have not included, and I invite you to let me know what they are so that I can make sure to say those things, too.)
I love you. Growing up Irish Catholic, my father and brothers and I always knew that we loved one another, but we didn’t start saying it until I was well into my twenties. That was a beautiful and meaningful development in our lives, but had one of us died unexpectedly, “I love you” would have remained unsaid among us.
It might well “go without saying” that you love someone, but each of us still likes and needs to hear it sometimes. And the experience of feeling more loved by those around us makes it easier for us to experience ourselves as loved by God as well. So why put off saying such an important thing until a tomorrow that is not guaranteed?
Are you OK? Sometimes we sense that a person we care about is down, troubled or struggling, but we don’t ask them about it because it feels uncomfortable or intrusive. Love involves active concern for the well-being of the other, though, so it follows that if someone you love seems to be hurting, you should ask about it in the right way. If you’re like me, you’ve had friends or family members who have hit rock bottom, or even committed suicide, and you realized too late that they were struggling with more than they could ultimately bear alone. If you’re worried that someone you care about is not OK, why not ask? It is better to ask at the price of some discomfort, than not ask at the price of deep and lasting regret.
You can do it! Life is trying for each of us at times. We become down or discouraged and begin to doubt that we can do what we have set out to do. That is when loving words of encouragement can help us overcome doubt and regain confidence. So if someone you care about is struggling, why not encourage that person today?
I’m proud of you. Parents sometimes send their children the message, “Don’t embarrass us.” Companies sometimes also communicate the same thought to their employees in their ethics and compliance programs. In both cases, a better message is, “Make us proud!” Or even better, “I know you will make us proud!” Is there someone you are proud of for what they have accomplished or who they are, but have not let them know that yet?
Thanks for what you’ve done. Sometimes people have done great things for us, but we haven’t gotten around to thanking them. That could be someone who believed in you and gave you a great opportunity. Or it could be a friend, family member, teacher, co-worker or other person who provided just what was needed at a critical moment.
When I left the priesthood in the early 1990s and returned from Rome to New York with very little money and no place to stay, my friends Jim and Jeanine very generously invited me to stay with them and their newborn baby for months in their recently purchased first home. They went well above and beyond the duty of friendship, and I can never thank them enough for so generously caring about me when they already had more than enough to care about in their own busy lives.
Sometimes, I have failed to offer thanks. When I was in high school in the “dazed and confused” 70s, I was focused — but not on my college search! I was headed for a lazy, ill-informed and ill-considered decision. Then Mr. McGrath, my guidance counselor, suggested that Boston College might be a good choice for me since I was a public school kid looking for a great Catholic university in a major college town. I didn’t know anything about Boston College or the Jesuits, but I visited BC, fell in love with the place, and would readily go there again if I had it to do all over.
I also ended up becoming a Jesuit for 12 years based on my time at BC, and to this day, that more than anything else has shaped my understanding and practice of my Catholic faith and my very relationship with God. None of that would have happened but for the sage advice of Mr. McGrath. Yet I never got around to thanking him for the profound difference that advice made in my life, and now it is too late. I regret that.
Thanks for who you are. There are people we need to thank for who they are, rather than for what they have done. Think of people who are a steady source of inspiration, wisdom, encouragement or support. Think of the first person you want to call whether something wonderful or something awful happens. Think of the people who are faithfully there increasing your joy by sharing in triumphs and celebrations, or lessening your sorrow by helping you carry heavy loads at times of loss or disappointment.
Perhaps we think those people just know that we appreciate them not for wonderful gifts they offer, but for the wonderful gifts that they are. But we should tell them how much we appreciate them and, to make it more meaningful, to explain in some detail why.
I would do it all over again. My beloved wife, Meghan, and I attended a Mass some years ago at which about 10 couples were asked to renew their wedding vows on the occasion of their 25th or 50th wedding anniversaries. The priest asked the couples to stand up, and first asked the men to repeat their vows after him. They did so unhesitatingly. He then asked the women to repeat their vows. More than a few of them hesitated or remained silent for several moments, until further prompted by the perplexed priest, who said, “Ladies?”
It was an awkward pause. Perhaps it was nervousness or something else, or perhaps it was the women thinking about what they were repeating more than the men did, and not being so sure about saying the vows. In any case, sitting there, I found myself realizing that I would marry Meghan if I had it to do all over again even more eagerly and joyfully than I did the first time. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world then, and I feel even luckier now, almost eight years later. I should tell her that more often. (Whether she would do it all over again or hesitate like the thoughtful ladies at that Mass, you’d have to ask her!)
Tell me more about yourself. My father was a towering figure in my life and I miss him daily. Work was a big part of his life. Yet I was too caught up in my own life to ask him about it until one day when he was about 60 years old and driving me to an airport in New York. He was a chiropractor who often charged patients who were struggling financially little or nothing. He worked long hours until very near the end of his life in 2009. When asked how much he worked, he would say, “just half days,” meaning 12 hours a day!
On the way to the airport, I asked how he was able to maintain such a grueling schedule for so many years when many people half his age would find that hard to do. He responded that there are a lot of people in the world suffering needlessly from slipped discs, pinched nerves and the like, and said, “God has given me the ability to relieve that pain. That makes it worth getting up for work in the morning.”
Wow. I’m glad I asked, but I recommend not waiting as long as I did. The day will come when you’ll wish you’d asked your parents or others about important parts of their lives including their work, their values and beliefs, their dreams, what has brought them the most joy, or how they met and knew they’d found the person they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with. Why not ask?
Do you have what you need? We all know that we are going to die one day, but many of us put off talking about that as long as possible because the topic is uncomfortable or because we don’t want to seem morose. But for the sake of our loved ones, there are practical matters we need to talk about sooner rather than later.
My brother, Terry, died suddenly last summer, and I am the executor of his estate. Fortunately, he was very organized so that I had most of the files that I needed. But we did not have the password to his computer, and none of us could figure out the answer to his security question. Have you put all of your important personal and financial information (account numbers, user names, passwords, security question answers, etc.) in one place where your significant other or someone else you trust could access it if you were suddenly unavailable to help?
Forgive me. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously quipped, “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Hurting someone is bad enough, but failing to acknowledge and apologize for the hurt makes things considerably worse. A heartfelt “I’m sorry” goes a long way, especially when we follow up by asking what we can do to make things right.
That hurt. Some people in our lives are like dancers who step on our toes, but don’t realize it. Those people won’t know to say, “I’m sorry.” They might sense that something is wrong in our relationship with them, but not know what or why.
So let them know. It is better to let people know than to remain silent about it. Stewing is not helpful and creates further distance between you and the person who unknowingly stepped on your toes. Say it, be done with it, and then move on with greater peace in your heart.
I forgive you. Sometimes, we fail to forgive people for words or actions that are so distant that we can barely recall them, or that appear increasingly minor with the passage of time. Sometimes, we go so far as to define people by wrongs they have done. They become in our eyes not John or Jane, but “the person who said or did this wrong or hurtful thing.”
Most of us would like to be forgiven more readily than we forgive others, and none of us wants to be defined by the wrong we have done. So we should forgive as freely as we have been forgiven by a God of boundless mercy, and as we would like to be forgiven by others. As tree limbs fallen in a stream impede the flow of water, so failures to forgive in our lives impede the desired flow of grace.
My thinking about forgiveness changed abruptly one day when I was praying the “Our Father” at Mass. I realized that I could not sincerely pray that God would forgive me my trespasses as I forgive those who trespass against me, unless I started to forgive others a lot more generously than I had been. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that requires both loving our neighbors by offering forgiveness, and loving ourselves by letting go of anger and resentment. As the poet Maya Angelou observed, “It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.”
Praise the Lord! Luke 17:11-19 recounts the time Jesus healed 10 lepers, but only one of them, a Samaritan, returned to give thanks and praise to God for the healing. Jesus said in response, “Were not 10 made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
I find it sobering to consider whether, with respect to many blessings received from God, which category I fit in: Am I more like the one leper, who is keenly aware of the blessings and returns to the Lord to offer thanks and praise? Or like the other nine, who are either not sufficiently mindful of the blessings they have received, or who are too preoccupied with other matters to make the time to offer the thanks and praise that are due?
The importance of thankfulness in the Christian life cannot be overstated. The very word “eucharist” comes from the Greek verb eucharistein, which means “to give thanks.” So we participate meaningfully in the eucharist only when we are aware of the blessings we’ve received and moved to give thanks for them. But why not offer thanks and praise to God not only on Sundays but today?
That ends my checklist. I hope you’ve found it helpful. Can you think of words of love, gratitude, forgiveness, concern, apology or encouragement that you should offer to someone you care about today? Are there important things that you need to say to someone that are not included on my checklist? Do you have a compelling reason for not saying those things today?
If so, that’s fine. But if like most of us you don’t have a good reason for delay, then why not say it today?
Joe Holt teaches ethics, spirituality of work, and negotiations in graduate business programs at Notre Dame.
He invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/joseph-holt-60222b2)