The kid I was training nodded, his face pale against the charcoal gray of the passenger
-“Well, this is one of them.”
It was about 2:00 a.m. and we were carrying a patient who had taken a potentially lethal mixture of pills and alcohol. Getting her to the hospital as quickly as possible was literally a matter of life and death – and thankfully, she made it in time.
The next afternoon, as I went to the library to finish some research, I overheard a few conversations:
- “No, you don’t understand… I got a B on the last exam. And I have to finish all three of these papers tonight, or my life is over!”
- “If that hotel for spring break is already full I don’t know what I’m going to do...”
- “But he only said two sentences to me last night and danced with that awful girl from his chem class. If he mentions her today I’m just going to die!”
Everywhere I turned, it seemed there were more people freaking out or in a crisis about one thing or another. While on other days I had certainly found myself among their ranks, this time I could only think of that girl from the night before, fading out of consciousness as her liver was slowly destroyed. All of a sudden, my unfinished five page paper didn’t seem so critical.
That was two or three years ago, and I can no longer remember the girl’s name, the combination of drugs she had taken, or even what class I was supposed to be writing the paper for. The lesson, however - of what ‘life and death’ really looks like - has remained with me to this day.
Although I am probably doomed to stay a perfectionist until the day I die, I’ve noticed that when it comes to the list of tasks I have to accomplish or the various workplace fiascos that invariably ensue, my perspective has changed. I still get stressed when I’m in a time crunch or things don’t go according to plan… but I’ve come to the realization that as long as everyone is still breathing, there are very few errors that can’t be somehow fixed, relationships that can’t be mended – or deadlines that can’t be slightly adjusted, if necessity dictates. Sometimes, though, we get so caught up in meeting everyone’s expectations and getting everything just right that we trick ourselves into believing that anything less than perfection means our entire future (and therefore our whole life) is in jeopardy. Unfortunately, getting stuck in the superficial can mean losing sight of the things –and people – that really matter in the long run.
That afternoon in the library, I found myself wondering about my patient. Why was she so upset she thought the only way out of her problems was killing herself? Somehow, with a little alcohol and a loss of perspective, the challenges of college seemed an insurmountable obstacle. Why had no one been there to support her or offer a listening ear? Had the people in her life been too preoccupied by the ‘life and death’ issues of midterms or papers to notice the true crisis brewing right in front of them until it was too late?
As long as there are deadlines, grades, and teenage drama, and we will always find a ‘crisis’ of some kind or another in our lives. An essential part of growing up is learning to recognize the important things that really shouldn’t wait…and giving all the rest its place and time, not to be agonized through, but enjoyed. Sometimes it means taking half an hour off of paper-writing to meet a friend for coffee or enjoy the first snow of winter… and it always includes remembering that life is short, unpredictable and precious – meant to be cherished and shared, not just finished on time. In the end, what we treat as life-and-death is a pretty good indicator of what defines our life. The choices – and the priorities – are ours to make.
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