Live Life Backwards

“Live Life Backwards.” That was a message that stuck out from my first job as a management trainee five years ago. In one of the personal planning sessions that the management trainee group had, our chief financial officer uttered those fateful words that still resonate with me. He wanted us to invest in our financial future. He gave us a look at the age of retirement and he wanted to help us plan for those years and make them as comfortable as they can be.

The key, he said, was to save, to invest in financial instruments, and to control our urge to splurge. Consume just enough now so that the future will be better. In short, he steered us toward a practical lifestyle change very early on in our lives. I’d say those are wise words to live by. I followed them to a T for the next three years and focused on my future.

The emotions that came with following that advice and doing work that was only a means to financial ends took their toll on me. I had a difficult time focusing on what I was supposed to do, and I was more interested in the things that were happening outside the office. The hands of time couldn’t move fast enough to release me from sitting still in front of a laptop.

Don’t get me wrong. My workplace wasn’t different from any other: It had its highs and lows. But I knew that there was something I needed to do about my everyday life. It was time for change.

I’ve since left that job and I’ve done things here and there. Nowadays, I am trying to come to terms with securing my future and fulfilling my present. I want to turn the idea around and think that my focus shouldn’t only be on acquiring assets for a comfortable future. I find myself caught up in a time that doesn’t exist yet. I have become so obsessive with future security that I’ve forgotten about the present and the needs that come with it.

In a way, focusing too much on the future, on solely accumulating wealth, was dehumanizing. I lost hope in the possibility of doing the things I loved to do. As much as my future will need food on the table and a roof over my head, my present will need family eating with me on the table and friends laughing with me in my home. I need the joy of knowing I am living my life now.

I’m sure there’s a balance somewhere between those two circles of thought, but there seems to be too much dissonance between them right now. At one point in my young career, things didn’t pan out as I had hoped. The job I had and the business I put up fell short of my expectations. I learned the hard way that you can only plan so far ahead. I had to rethink my priorities because I found that what happens tomorrow isn’t a sure thing. I won’t go so far as to say I stopped caring about the future—it means I won’t neglect the here and now as much as I used to. It took me a while to realize it wasn’t just the path that needed to change but also what part of the map the navigator was looking at.

For me, it’s difficult to go on a path I want when I have a need for security that prevents me from doing a lot of things. The fear of possibly failing and falling flat on my face prevented me from experiencing life. This is in stark contrast with my friends and former classmates who took more risks and made more mistakes earlier in their lives and who are now thriving in the world outside school because they are graceful with their missteps and relentless when they fall. They’re a perfect mix of beauty queen and boxer: Falling doesn’t stop them from getting back up.

Thinking that I haven’t made those same strides makes me feel like someone who has let a few things slip away. By not living in the present, I missed out on some opportunities that can’t be taken back. I can’t go back to high school and pursue my dream of joining the varsity basketball team instead of going for academic honors that I never cared for. I also can’t go back to college and choose to spend more time with my friends, maybe skip a class or three with them to watch some movies. I now pin my hopes on the idea that it all happened for a reason.

I chose to be someone who wouldn’t make mistakes. I found some comfort by not disappointing others, especially my family. At the same time, I now have to live with the heartache that fear and inaction brought me. My choices back then, even before hearing the advice of my former employer, were motivated by trying to please others and secure my future. I gave more importance to what “should” have been done instead of what I felt would give me fulfillment.

The things I regret are not my mistakes but the things that didn’t happen because I chose to stay silent about what would make me happy. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., though used in a different context, “silence is betrayal.” I now want to voice out my heart’s long silence. I want to take risks, to feel life. I want to make my mistakes and learn how to get back up from them.

I’ve since started to volunteer in activities that I’ve always wanted to do, like teaching in university and coaching basketball. I haven’t felt purpose like this since I left school half a decade ago. Whether I’m right or I’m wrong with what I’m doing now doesn’t matter. At the very least, I know that I gave myself a chance at doing something I love.

Going on this path of focusing on the present takes a lot of blind faith and courage to get you through the uncomfortable. It also takes the help and patience of the people around you. I am lucky to have the support of so many loved ones. I am also happily surprised by the existence of good Samaritans who offer their help when they don’t have to. When it comes to planning for anything past today, I will just have to believe that what I’m doing now is right.

The limits I put on myself are there because that is all I know. Discovery will expand my horizons and bring me to places I never knew. Who knows? I may reach that point of fulfillment I was talking about, but then learn that there’s a higher calling for me out there. Now, I’m looking forward to what comes after my vision of the not-so-distant future. It’s exciting and liberating.

“Live life backwards,” he said. Here I go.

This blog was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on the 28th of June, 2015.

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