The Conversation That Changed My Life
Oddly enough, the conversation that changed my life took place at a party I didn't even want to go to. I'm not a party-person in general, and I had some personal stuff going on in the relationship realm that made me not want to be at a big, festive event. I was feeling anything but festive.
I was in the early stages of my relationship with Kathlyn. I was deeply attracted to her, but I was already feeling the early warning signs of the relationship's demise. I could feel an old familiar fear of commitment stirring within me. It was a fear that filled my mind with doubt and caused me to look for things to criticize about her. I was achingly familiar with this pattern; it had caused the deterioration of several relationships in my past. I would get involved with someone, then about six months into the relationship I would start to pull back, usually just about the time the woman wanted me to make a deeper commitment.
Kathlyn was relatively new in town and wanted to go to the party so she could meet people. I had agreed to take her, and I didn't want to face her reaction if I changed my mind. That was another pattern of mine: To do something I didn't want to do in order to avoid the unpleasantness of the other person's disappointment or anger. Finally I decided to put aside my resistance and fulfill my obligation. I suited up, rehearsed my party-smile, and marched forth into the cold November night. Little did I know I was about to have a conversation that would change my life forever.
After an hour or so I was getting tired of being convivial and participating in party-chatter. To get out of the fray, I sidled into a quiet den that was lined with bookshelves. There I found another "escapee" who was browsing books on the shelves, a tall fellow with a shaven head, about sixty years of age. We greeted each other and exchanged names. He said he'd gotten tired of small-talk and was taking a breather.
I told him I felt exactly the same way.
That's when the conversation shifted into a new dimension.
"Well, since we're here and we don't like small talk, let's not have any," he said.
"Done deal," I said, thinking our interaction was over.
Instead, he said "Then let's either have some Big Talk or no talk at all."
I took a deep breath and plunged into the unknown. I told him I was up for some Big Talk.
Right away he offered a piece of information that definitely qualified as Big Talk. He said he'd had a near-death experience, but that it turned out to be possibly the greatest experience of his life. He said that through the experience he had received the gift of a profound question.
I asked him to tell me more.
He told me the details weren't important, but he offered to ask me the question that had come out of the experience.
"It's big," he said, "Are you absolutely certain you want it?"
I could feel the icicle-butterfly sensations of fear in my stomach, but I could also feel a heightened sense of excitement and alertness all over me.
"Yes," I said.
"Okay," he said, "Imagine you're on your deathbed."
I gulped. "Okay."
He said it might be today or tomorrow or fifty years from now, but whenever it was, imagine that he came to visit me on my deathbed.
He asked me to picture him standing beside the bed, telling me goodbye. From this perspective, he said, ask yourself this question:
"Was your life a complete success?"
"Right," I said, intrigued by the direction this was taking.
"If you said ‘No, my life was not a complete success,' you would have some reasons why it wasn't. For example, J. Paul Getty, who was the wealthiest man in the world, said on his deathbed, ‘I'd gladly give up all my millions for one experience of marital happiness.' If he'd been given a wish, that's what he would have wished for."
I was fascinated by what he was saying, but I could also feel a growing sense of anxiety in my belly. What did all this have to do with me?
"If you told me on your deathbed that your life had not been a success, what would be the things you'd wish had happened that would have made it a success?"
My mind went TILT. What an amazing question! Right away I knew the main reason my life was not a success:
Because I never enjoyed a long and happy marriage with a woman I adored and who adored me…a lifelong blossoming of passion and creativity with a woman.
Ed asked my why that was important to me. The words seemed to tumble out of my mouth. First, to have this kind of relationship would accomplish something I'd never seen in the world, and certainly not in my family of origin. Second, to enjoy lasting love with a woman would mean that my moment-to-moment experience would be rich and joyful. Third, I had a master's degree and a Ph.D. in the field of counseling psychology and had counseled thousands of people on their issues and concerns. What good was all that training and practice if I couldn't figure out how to experience genuine, lasting love with one other human being?
"Okay," he said, "turn the wish into a goal, and put it in the present tense, as if it's happening right now."
I rearranged the words in my head. My life is a total success because I enjoy a happy marriage with a woman I adore and who adores me. I'm enjoying a lifelong blossoming of passion and creativity with her.
"Is that something you really want?" he asked.
"And is that something you're willing to commit yourself to, body and soul?"
I immediately felt a gut-dropping sensation of fear, but in spite of the wave of terror I said, "Yes." Remarkably, as soon as I said yes the fear disappeared completely.
I felt my whole body light up with an inner smile. I had no idea if I could accomplish this goal, but I knew I would die unsatisfied if I did not commit myself body and soul to the quest. Getting clear on this goal and its importance to me awakened a burst of energy and aliveness I could feel all over.
Fast Forward to Now
If I hadn't answered the big question Ed asked me at the party, I don't think I would have been able to make a lasting commitment to Kathlyn.
When I realized that my life would feel incomplete without a lasting love-relationship, I found the courage to face all my fears and move through them. Ultimately, answering that one simple question gave us the gift of 28 years (so far!) of magic and miracles.