What Part of Yourself Matters Most?

There's a lot of noise out there that keeps distracting us from what's truly important. There are the small, daily sounds of trying to get through an ordinary week, like grocery lists and utility bills and car repairs.

Then there are the bigger, scarier noises—the headlines about terrorists and refugees, political shamanism, new viruses on the horizon.

With so much noise, it's difficult to discover, and then remember, who you really are. What is your essence? If everything unimportant was stripped away from your life, what would people see?

I've been thinking about this a lot since reading an incredible story in the New York Times Sunday magazine last month called “The House at the End of the World,” by Jon Mooallem.

The story profiles two men. One is Dr. B.J. Miller, who lost his legs in an accident when he was a college sophomore, and went on to become a leader in the area of death and dying. The other is Randy Sloan, a young man who adapted a motorcycle for Dr. Miller to ride despite his prosthetic limbs.

When Sloan was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rapidly-moving and incurable type of cancer, Dr. Miller helped him navigate how he would die. What struck me about this story, besides the incredible admiration I have for both men and for the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, which Dr. Miller was directing when Sloan went there to live at the end of his life, were the questions Dr. Miller asked of Sloan.

One of the questions was this: “So, what's your favorite part of yourself? What character trait do we want to make sure to protect as everything else falls apart?”

Dr. Miller's message to his patients is one we should all embrace, no matter how young or healthy we might be: No matter how much noise there is to distract us, it's essential to keep rearranging our lives in ways that will allow us to commit, and then to remain faithful, to the parts of ourselves that feel most meaningful.

Or, to put it another way: If you were a snowman and you melted, what would you want people to see left lying on the ground? Your red cashmere scarf? Your expensive black leather gloves? That fancy phone?

Or your warm, beating heart, the joy you took in doing good work, and the love you feel for the people in your life?

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