Anytime you do something, it’s the last time you do it. Even if you are working on a manufacturing line, repeating the same process day in and day out, the sameness of your experience is an illusion you can recognize and discard so that you can grow past it. Just as you can never step in the same river twice, you can never truly repeat anything. You are always on the first and last attempt.
This to me translates into making every moment count. Everything matters when you realize that you won’t have a second chance at it.
When I am taking photos at the events I cover, I am pressing my shutter button hundreds of times a night. In a given week I may shoot upwards of 3,000 images. Do I really believe that every shot matters?
Yes, I do. Because that instant I am observing, when a face breaks into a smile, or a pair of eyes light up with intelligence and interest, matters to me and in another millisecond it will pass. The light in the room will change, sometimes within minutes. The “vibe” and feeling in the room will flow and alter course as the night progresses. Nothing remains constant. Each shot is another opportunity to capture something that won’t ever happen just the same way again.
You might think that this is exaggeration and hyperbole. Philosophically you may cede the point, but really, does it matter that much whether you get a shot of that woman smiling over at table 68, or that man in deep conversation standing by the projection screen? Maybe it doesn’t to you. But when I’m working, I think it does. And if you are that person on the other end of the shot, it may matter to you.
I’ve had the experience now of having taken the last photo of a few people who I later learned died not long afterwards. I can’t be certain mine was the very last photo taken, but I think it’s probable. Once it was a young caregiver at my daughter’s daycare, another time a much loved and respected philanthropist. When I look at these photos I think to myself what if I had just not bothered that one time. If I had turned my attention inward or off a little, been a little blasé about what I was doing. After all, I’m just an event photographer. I’m not saving lives in an emergency room or devoting myself to teaching literacy to poor underprivileged children in the developing world.
If I had done that of course, these photos wouldn’t exist. And I like to think that whatever comfort they may have provided to the loved ones they left behind, would have been a little less. Maybe that doesn’t matter to everyone, but it matters to me.
I also recognize, when reflecting on these rare occasions, that you never know when you are living your last day. It always amazes me that we live our lives and then one day they just stop. Lurking in every breath we take is the thought, perhaps the fear, that one day we will take our last. Will I be ready? Will I have done enough? Will I have mattered?
Thinking that way pushes me right back into the present moment. If this could be my last day, time with my child, meal, walk in a park…I want it to matter. I want it to count. I want to take it all in and absorb everything possible from the experience.
This also transforms the natural fear of death, into a powerful joyful fuel. You will end. So while you are here, make everything matter. This moment now won’t come back. So be in it. And the next one to. For as long as you have.
This kind of thinking infuses not just my work, but all of my life. How I spend my time with friends and family. The things I like to do. The way I recover when I mess up and break the trust with myself or another. When I am losing my temper over some kind of momentary situation, I always return to the awareness that the moment is passing and if this were to be my last, I would not want it to end this way.
It doesn’t matter what you do. Whether you drive a truck for a living or trade financial derivatives that no one understands but are making you filthy rich. The moments matter. Being conscious of them can enhance your time infinitely and bring richness to every encounter such that the everyday becomes almost miraculous in its power to give and teach you something new.