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January 14, 2008
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On Life and Living

With great respect and apologies to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, it is time to take the concept she pioneered of identifiable stages in the process of grief and reverse it. The reversal is to focus on essential stages in the process of living a great and joyful life. 

It was in 1973 that Kubler-Ross articulated five stages that occur in the process of grieving over the death and dying of a loved one. Decades later, her work is in worldwide use. 

Those stages of grief begin with denial and isolation. We can’t imagine that this loss has occurred, and we may want to remove ourselves from our friends or our social contacts. Although this denial may last very briefly, it gives way to the next phase — a period of anger that the person’s life ended prematurely due to disease, being a gun violence victim, at the hands of a drunk driver or in a war. We may be mad at ourselves for not having prevented the tragedy. We may be mad at our leaders, at God, even at the person who died. 

That gives way to bargaining, in the sense of offering God a deal, such as, “If I do penance or donate to charity, will you make this grief and loss go away?”

Next in Kubler-Ross’ construction of grief comes a period of depression where the person can’t believe that this loss happened and begins to realize that there is nothing they can do to change the event.

Finally, acceptance occurs as anger or denial gives way to the reality that what has happened, happened. 

Kubler-Ross describes grief as a healing part of life, as something unavoidable but something that can be mitigated by having certain philosophies and approaches to taking care of yourself and your own health. A support system of friends, exercise and a focus on a tribute to the memory of the person who died are all a part of the return to a more normal life. 

What about creating another and much happier concept of living a life that is full of joy, excitement and giving? Might there also be stages in such a “living?” Might living this kind of life also be something we can all think about in a more structured way and consciously move toward? The HR Doctor believes strongly that this is the case. 

What are the stages of living a triumphant life? The first is an abiding sense of curiosity. Curiosity means challenging the status quo. It means asking questions about how to do something differently, or asking “What would happen if…?”

Newton’s first law of motion describes inertia, a favorite subject of the HR Doctor. It is inertia that limits our progress as individuals, as communities, as a country and as a species. Learning to overcome inertia means learning to broaden your horizons, to take in what the world has to offer. It leads directly to the next stage in the creation of a triumphant life, inspiration.

Ask challenging questions, especially ask them of yourself. This can lead to thinking about how to make a different outcome happen. It can lead to the inspiration to try a new recipe, a new life experience, to continue to learn and grow in school, in work and in family settings. 

When any person, but especially a young person, begins to think about a career and gets inspired by a person they’ve met, such as a mentor or a work supervisor, and acts on the advice mentors often give, the results can be an inspired person doing amazing things. That advice may well be for the person to be an explorer, and not to be afraid. 

Inspiration is an innate human capability that completely transcends gender, race, economic status, disability and anything else that Congress or even the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can possibly think of. But even the most curious and the most inspired people will squander the future that they could make possible for themselves without entering the third stage in the recipe for an amazing life.

That element is having and acting on a compelling sense of urgency. If you are inspired to learn a musical instrument, the time to follow a direction set by that inspiration is now. Always wanted to write a book? If you wait, you open the door to a myriad of excuses. If you really want to lose weight, or travel to a different part of the world, learn a language or learn the skills and knowledge to seek a promotion, the time to do it is now.

A compelling urgency directly attacks the scourge of inertia. Push ahead to follow that inspiration. Push ahead to satisfy curiosity. Do it so that you avoid looking back years later and using contractions such as “could’ve, should’ve and would’ve.”

The fourth stage is a basic HR Doctor philosophy, “Don’t postpone joy.” Be on a constant search for ways that relationships, avocations and objects can make you happy. Develop a better sense of humor no matter how good you think yours may be right now. Do things that make you smile.

In the course of doing that, you are making deposits into a bank account of passion and memories. Joyful memories are to be hoarded. Out of this bank account later, you may make what could be unlimited withdrawals to help you overcome disappointments, grief or the various curveballs thrown directly at us by forces in our lives.

We can’t control aging and we can’t control our own death.  But as the HR Doctor has pointed out in another article, “When You Die Your In-Box Will Still Be Full,” the basic idea is to look back after you have died and smile a lot whether you end up in heaven, hell, or return to life as a yellow Labrador service dog. Get to a point where you can reflect on a life well-lived and opportunities not squandered.

Finally, a life to be sought after and looked-back upon with amazement is not at all a product of an egocentric focus. The final stage is humility and appreciation.

A life in which our own arrogance has been “imprisoned” and surrounded by contribution is truly a life well lived. Recognizing and appreciating others, praising and encouraging, engagement in the community by acts of charity and acts of volunteerism tangibly improve your own life. Ironically, you might even think of appreciating and contributing as a form of selfishness. Truly what you reap is what you sow over time. Create a legacy in which you are thought of, or ultimately remembered, as a person who cares and who acts on that caring.

The surprise in looking at these five stages of the triumph of life is that what works for you as an individual also works to create a family full of amazing, engaging people like the HR Spouse Charlotte and amazing HR daughters Elyse and Rachel. It works to create a community in which people pay attention to the quality of the life of the least fortunate members of the community as well as the most fortunate. 

Another amazing result of recognizing these stages and making the most of them is that, once you start, a cycle is created in which your ability to be curious, inspired, act with urgency, be joyful and appreciate grows exponentially.

Soon a network is created in which you are a prime contributor to improving the lives of your colleagues, your neighbors and others. We are all role models. Be a role model for an extraordinary life.

Accept the gift of these stages of a triumphant life in the spirit in which the gift is intended.  Go out and do something enjoyable and spectacular — and hurry up about it.

Phil Rosenberg

The HR Doctor •


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