> Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

My Death Scare

May 31, 2015 | by Marshall Roth

A potential cancer diagnosis helped me discover the value of time.

I started seeing blood in my stool. Undeniable streaks of red.

I passed it off as nothing serious. My brother had bleeding hemorrhoids and I figured it was my turn next.

A search on Google confirmed that, indeed, bleeding hemorrhoids produces the effects I'd been seeing. So I pushed it out of my mind and went on with life.

A few months later, my brother-in-law – recovering from colon cancer – mentioned how it began with seeing blood in his stool.

Colon cancer?!

Doctor Google confirmed: colon cancer matched my symptoms.

My mind raced. I'm dying!

I called the gastroenterologist and described the symptoms.

"We'll schedule a colonoscopy right away," his secretary said cheerily, trying to cover up the urgent gloom.

I hung up and tried to absorb the stark reality: I may have only a few months to live.

Laser Focus

The ensuing days till my colonoscopy were the most harrowing – and most vibrant – of my life.

I tried pushing all negative thoughts from my mind. God is sending me a wake-up call, I reminded myself. This is my opportunity to reevaluate my life.

With the clock ticking fast, I pledged that – whatever the test results – I will try to maximize every moment.

Easier said than done. How does one begin to "maximize every moment"? By what measure determines a "valuable use of time"?

Impelled by the specter of mortality, I discovered a 3-step process:

Step-1 – Destination

Maximizing time starts with a clear destination. Just like a GPS quickly and efficiently determines the best route and mode of transportation, so too the path of life requires a precise destination.

I began by asking core questions:

  1. Who am I, and am I true to myself?
  2. What change do I want to effect in this world, and why?
  3. How much risk and hard work am I willing to invest to get there?

In those frantic few days, these essential questions made me realize: If I don't know where I'm going, I'll never get there.

Step-2 – Hourly Value

I felt the imperative to evaluate the worth of my time. But how?

An article published years ago on, "Curse of the Billable Hour," describes assigning a "dollar value" to time. If I'd be willing to perform some task for $100 an hour, that is its real-world value.

So I started, before undertaking any activity, to ask: Would I pay myself $100 an hour to do this? In other words, is this worth my time?

Before checking Facebook, I'd try remembering to ask: How much is this experience worth? Would I spend $50 for 30 minutes? Ten dollars for 6 minutes? Or is it just a waste of time?

I caught myself before clicking too far into "Internet space-out."

With increased awareness, I was able to catch myself before clicking too far into the time-wasting zone of "Internet space-out."

During my days in rabbinical school, one friend left a successful career on Wall Street to pursue Torah studies. He was exceptionally studious, and I asked how he managed to stay so focused.

"I was earning $400 an hour at the investment firm," he explained. "To justify my time in the study hall, each hour has to provide at least $400 value. So I make it count."

Step-3 – Moments of Choice

In my quest to maximize time, I discovered the importance of constant awareness. To avoid the comfort of spacing out and focus on what I'm doing.

Because only with awareness of each moment, can I hope to make the right choice for that moment. To keep the GPS positioned on target, and to follow its path.

Constant awareness is only possible with a daily time accounting. For as the most finite substance and our most precious commodity, time is the greatest measure of "profit and loss."

It is said that Baron Rothchild paid a servant to remind him every hour that he was one hour closer to death. That's why I love this hourly alarm APP.

Beyond this, I tried focusing on my breathing, and on the built-in mechanism of the heartbeat – an electrical pulse jolting me awake, again and again, prodding the question: Am I serious and focused, using my time most productively?

Priority Goals

Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg, a great sage of the past generation, illustrated the profound value of time:

When it comes to precious items – a diamond ring or a Picasso, for example – the precious item is placed at the center, framed by less expensive materials. Yet a wristwatch appears to be the exception: a gold casing often outshines the comparatively simple watch-face.

In truth, Rabbi Sheinberg said, a wristwatch also frames the more valuable item: Time.

Every moment is infused with vast potential.

What will I make of it?

In the end, my colonoscopy showed no sign of cancer, placing me among the select few to actually celebrate a diagnosis of "bleeding hemorrhoids."

What a wonderful wake-up call.

What a lesson not to rely on Doctor Google.


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