Nieszczur: What fills the dash between your birth and death dates?

Alexis Nieszczur, IC Columnist

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Speeches have a way of influencing lives and changing perspectives.

I was in Cindy Puffer’s privileged audience when she delivered her “Living Your Dash” speech nearly a year ago. Puffer is a registered nurse, and she was speaking to a group of Rho Chi inductees, their family members, professors and distinguished guests.

By the dash, she was referring to the period in an individual’s life between when she was born and when she dies: basically, the dates on her tombstone. That speech struck a chord because it reminded me of a common statement I have often heard tossed around quite a bit: “Don’t get so busy living that you forget to live.” Yet, her speech was special in its impact on me, and, I believe, on some of the audience too.

She said that while it is easy for sympathizers to look up and know a person’s birthdate and the day she passed, it’s harder to know what the deceased has done with all that life in between. She then paused and asked, “What are you doing with that life—the tiny dash between the two dates?” This is an important question that we should all reflect on as we go through our days.

This tiny dash, she said, contains years of experiences, knowledge and the impacts we had on those around us, on our environment. People would easily forget our birth and death dates, but they seldom forget the experiences they had with us—good or bad.

She ended the speech with a challenge to the audience that we all try to fit that dash with the most we can in terms of how we touched other lives. She also encouraged us to find joy and happiness in the process rather than blindly fighting to fit as many milestones as possible into that dash. Milestones are good but they themselves are inadequate. They must lead to something greater.

I thought about my life during that speech and realized how I was on the typical bandwagon to living life the way society expects of me.

For example, the typical trend in an average person’s life follows a progression very much like the this. Our parents enroll us in kindergarten, grade school, we go to to middle school and eventually we are in high school. Soon, we get ready for prom and then go off to college, select a major and graduate.

For some people, this is where they meet their significant others and perhaps—and I may be wrong—get engaged and then married.  Then they can’t wait to have a child, and then another and then another.

Some will find the jobs of their dreams and jump from one promotion to the other. Our children soon become adults and we continue our search for celebrating milestones through their achievements. Some may be lucky enough to see their retirement and play with the grandkids. By all social standards, this is success.

Why are we chasing after all these milestones in the first place? Is this life worth living? Is it really considered living? But what if we’re missing the point of life?

For good and for bad, we are a generation that seeks instant gratification.

We’re so busy that we don’t make time for the things that matter. We’ll choose Google to find solution to problems over talking to real people. We want to stay in touch with friends and settle for an impersonal, but instantly gratifying, text message.  Community is dead.

We want our devices to work faster, have clearer displays and have more powerful capabilities. Just like that, our wish is their command, with new updates available every few months.

Marketing strategies want us to focus on saving up for the next big thing and rushing into the next life milestone.  It seems that the “American dash” is simply full of rushing to get to the next mile marker.

When did we forget how to live?

Like most Americans, I am very guilty of being the American dasher.  I crossed off the days on my calendar until the next big event and sought to climb life’s ladder as painlessly and effortlessly as possible.

It was my best friend who pointed out to me how empty living a life like that could be.

For my 20th birthday, she painted me a simple small canvas with the word “serendipity” on it.  She told me to look up its meaning and to adopt it as the theme for my 20s.

Serendipity means “finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”  This is what made Puffer’s message familiar and attractive.

Instead of seeking out the next big event, promotion, graduation or life milestone, I am challenged to “live my dash” and find purpose in every day.

So, I began to make conscious efforts to focus less on running the race, and more on enjoying the ride.  I began to find purpose and reflect on the happiness and potential that each day held.

My perspective changed, and, honestly, life became a lot brighter and each day became something to look forward to.

I challenge you to remove yourself from the race and instead, take time to build a meaningful dash between your birth date and your death date.

You should constantly ask yourself if, at the end, people will look back on your dash and see it filled with a purposeful life that was truly lived.

All we may leave behind are two dates and a name on a headstone, but what fills that tiny little dash makes all the difference.

Alexis Nieszczur is a third-year PharmD student in the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

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Nieszczur: What fills the dash between your birth and death dates?