What Are You Doing With the “Hyphen” That Will be on Your Tombstone?

Last month our pastor revealed that the father of one of his best friends from high school had died at age 71. His friend, also a minister, did the eulogy at the funeral, and gave our pastor permission to read a portion of it to our congregation. His friend is a brilliant writer, and surprisingly emphasized the hyphen that appears on a tombstone. Yes, the hyphen. He raised a critical question in the eulogy: what are you doing with the hyphen that will be on your tombstone?

Inconsequential? Not hardly. Turns out that the tiny hyphen is probably the most significant symbol that will appear on your tombstone.

Here are my thoughts and impressions about the hyphen.

The Hyphen – The Most Important Symbol on Your Tombstone

Of course the hyphen referred to here is the dash that appears between the year of a person’s birth and death. We see it in the tombstone as “1946 2017” (to frame the life of a 71 year old).

But why should the hyphen be so important?

Because it represents everything we’ve done in our lives, from birth to death. It represents, in fact, our very lives. While a tombstone records the parameters of our lives by time – the beginning and the end – the hyphen is everything in between.

When a person dies, one of the first questions we ask is how old was he/she? That’s when we start doing that unconscious, death-related bargaining with the Devil thing, by comparing our current age with that of the decedent – as if it has any real impact on our own longevity.

We’re more concerned with how long the person lived than with the infinitely more important question of how the person lived.

Or perhaps, is the decedent’s age just a distraction to keep us from focusing on the real issuewhat is the quality of our lives?

What Are You Doing With the “Hyphen” That Will be on Your Tombstone?
What Are You Doing With the “Hyphen” That Will be on Your Tombstone?

Our whole culture is focused on the length of a person’s life, as if he who lives longest, wins. Longevity is closely followed by both the officialdom and by the masses, to make sure that it steady increases. It’s as if longevity is the gold standard of human existence.

But maybe quality of life should be our main concern, and that raises some interesting and maybe painful questions.

Are You Making the Best Use of Your Time?

Death is the proverbial showstopper in life. It’s that inevitable, undeniable fact that forces us to come face-to-face with the reality that our time here is limited.

Given that reality, are you making the best use of your time? Most of us certainly don’t, and that leaves plenty of room for improvement.

Consider the way that you use your time in all aspects of your life:

Your work. This is a two part consideration, the big picture and the small picture. The big picture is what you do for a living. Are you doing work that you truly like (or love), that you’re good at, and that adds meaning to your life? Or are you working to pay the bills, hoping to save up enough in your retirement plans to one day exit in triumph (you hope)?

Since you know that life is short, you should be dedicating more of your hyphen to doing work you love, and it’s out there if you dare give yourself permission to follow it. You don’t have to quit your job to do this either. You can do it as a side venture, and maybe one day it will become your main thing. Doing anything less is wasting your hyphen.

The small picture is how you do your work, whatever your work is. Whether you’re in a job or you’re self-employed, how you use your time at work matters in the big picture. For example, do you spend your time working on mission-critical projects, the kind that will enhance your business, result in a promotion or greater pay, or maybe even build a better mousetrap? Or do you spend most of your day doing busy work, putting in your time until quitting time? Busywork may make you look productive, but it doesn’t move you forward in the limited amount of time that life provides. Think carefully about what you do on the job eveyday.

Your responsibilities. This is the maintenance of your life, such as housework, paying bills, dealing with the people in your life, etc. This looks and feel like pure drudgery. That’s exactly why it’s so easy to waste time on it. Because you don’t want to do any of these chores, procrastination and creative distraction enter the picture. Rather than getting these responsibilities completed so that you can move on with your life, instead you waste a lot of time in the wind up phase. Often times, the delay results in even bigger problems, eating up even more of your time.

There’s no way to escape the personal responsibilities that you have in life, whatever they are. The best use of your hyphen here is to get these responsibilities taken care of as soon as possible, which will free you up for other pursuits.

Your free time. We all need downtime, and that includes time to do absolutely nothing. But entertainment can also be the very definition of creative distraction. Too much time watching TV, texting, working the social media, surfing the web and playing video games becomes a time killer. And by extension, a life killer.

We all need some form of entertainment, but it should be kept to a minimum, and even used for more productive pursuits. For example, if you’re not happy with your career, your free time is the margin in your life that can enable you to transition into something else. A large portion of your free time should be used to make that happen. You should also think in terms of your relationships and your health, and invest more time in them. Mindless entertainment takes away from any of those pursuits, and that’s why it needs to be limited. In the end, entertainment passes the time, but it doesn’t really improve the quality of our lives.

Your experiences. This is another compelling reason to avoid being overly entertained. Life is something to be experienced. If you spend too much time watching TV, you’re not living life, but watching it – and it isn’t even real at that.

Experiences can include doing things that excite you, like skydiving or scuba diving with sharks (neither of which appeals to me in the least), but they can also be meaningful in the big picture. For example, you can choose to spend more time with people, doing things and taking on new experiences. You can also choose to volunteer to help people, and there is plenty of need for that. In fact, that’s the kind of connection that keeps people better grounded. You can even use experiences on the career front, by taking on new challenges that might open up new doors of opportunity.

You’ll never learn about any of these things unless you actually get out there and experience them. That means committing yourself to becoming more of a doer, and less of a watcher.

Are You Making the Best Use of Your Talents?

I think it’s true that most people have talents that they never put to good use. That’s tragic because while there may be many types of work that you can do, there are probably just two or three that you’re especially good at, and that you like so much that doing them won’t even feel like work.

One of the problems that we all face is that we live in a world that’s highly systematized. We come up through the education system, where we’re essentially given a menu of choices. But those choices may not accommodate our own talents and preferences. However, since the school system encourages and often enforces conformity, we play the go-along-to-get-along game to win the approval of the adults and peers in our lives.

We become like drones in the education system, and modify our own personality and desires to fit within the system. Work in Corporate America and government finishes the job of turning us into conformists. I think this is also what leads to job burnout, depression and career crisis. Sooner or later we come face-to-face with the reality that we’re probably not suited for what it is we’re doing for a living.

Within the concept of the hyphen, we all have a responsibility to ourselves to identify our most important talents and passions, and find a way to put them to work. We owe that to society as well, because our talents and passions are what make us unique, and give us the ability to offer something truly different to the world. And despite our conformist tendencies society-wide, different is what the world desperately need. Think of all of the innovations and game changers that have developed throughout history; each one came about from someone who dared to be different. We all have that potential.

Be intentional about identifying your talents and passions, and then don’t be afraid to pursue them. Once again, you don’t have to quit your job to do this. You can start working on it in your free time. If you find your passion, and work your talent, the time will magically create itself. And eventually, you may become the person who you really are, and be in a better position to make a major contribution. It’s always worth the effort.

Are You Making the Best Use of Your Relationships?

This is probably another issue that’s really related to time. Since we have a limited amount of time, and so many obligations, something has to give. Unfortunately, that something is often our relationships. In order to meet our many obligations, we cut down on time with family and friends, in the mistaken notion that we’re doing it for the benefit of the very people who we’re shortchanging on time.

Nothing can be further from the truth. Not only are we limited by the hyphen in our lives, but so is everyone around us who matters. No matter how busy we are doing other things, we need to put time into relationships, particularly with spouses, children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, and close friends.

A major reason why our society has become so disjointed is because fundamental relationships, like family, friendships and community are breaking down. That’s not just an unfortunate event; it’s an outcome that’s lowering the quality of life for us and everyone around us. It’s also leading to tragedy in the form of broken relationships, broken families, broken lives and even early deaths.

One day the clock will run out for us or for our loved ones, and there will be no do-over when it does.

Have You Given Any Thought to What Comes Next?

I believe that the biggest reason why faith in God has fallen off a cliff since World War II is the fact that we feel more insulated from death than ever in human history. I say “feel” because that’s really all it is, a feeling. We believe that medical science will keep us insulated from death, while dazzling entertainment will keep us occupied and distracted from it in the meantime, and big government and the “system” will take care of all of our major needs and concerns.

But it doesn’t matter that our perceptions have us seemingly further from death, the reality is that we’ll all face it one day, modern technology be damned. The cemeteries testify to that fact.

Would a more common acknowledgement of our own inevitable deaths draw us closer to God? I think so. Never is one more likely to be drawn to God than at a death bed – our own or that of someone we love. However, it’s clear that we live in the Age of Denial on almost all fronts. As to faith, we’re surrounded by non-believers in the good times and fun places, and that makes it easy to dismiss the possibility of a higher power. It even makes us seem more sophisticated.

But is it right thinking?

There’s a video floating around called an Interview With God, which of course isn’t literal, but I dare to believe that it’s divinely inspired. It represents a conversation in which God expresses His own questions about humanity. One of the more profound topics that “God” observes about humanity is That they live as if they will never die, and die as though they had never lived.

I think that’s a highly accurate assessment of humankind. I believe that people don’t want to acknowledge death out of fear of the prospect of our own non-existence. If you don’t believe in God, then that’s certainly a rational belief.

But might our view of death change if we believe in God, and in His promises? The Bible provides abundant verses confirming life after death – John 3:16, Philippians 3:20-21, Romans 6:23, Acts 24:15, Matthew 25:46, Revelation 21:4, just to name a few.

You can choose not to believe this if you want, of course. But understand that non-belief doesn’t and can’t make God go away – it just moves you further away from Him, even to the point that you can’t and won’t perceive Him.

But if you believe in God, how might it affect your view of death, and by extension, of life?

If you believe in God, you can let go – the weight of the world’s troubles don’t rest on your shoulders. Your job is simply to do the best you can, and trust God for the outcome. You come to realize that the balance that holds the world together is a divine given, and probably won’t be terminated by nuclear war, a comet from space or even human miscalculation (which isn’t to say that we can’t royally screw things up and make life uncomfortable). You also come to realize that it doesn’t all end with darkness and non-existence, but of a different phase of existence, in a loving and eternal place.

How might you live if you could understand at the deepest levels that your life truly does matter on a much higher plane – even if it doesn’t seem to at this moment – and that it won’t all go up in a puff of smoke or a flatline on a heart monitor? That somehow, it’s all going to be OK, even in those dark moments when life doesn’t make sense and seems to be heading in a bad direction.

This is what I believe, and I find it to be liberating, not restraining. It makes the “hyphen” that will be on my tombstone so much richer.

Live For All it’s Worth – You’re Not Getting Out of Here Alive No Matter What You Do

We would do well to notice that the hyphen on tombstones is notoriously short. That should serve to warn us that our very lives are short as well. Worse, the older that we get, the shorter the hyphen becomes. We should be more mindful that it will all end in due course. And that should remind us that we have only limited time to do what’s important.

Start now to cut down on idle time, busywork and mindless entertainment. Begin to shift over to finding your true calling in life, drawing closer to people, and living richer experiences. None of us have absolute control over our lives, but we do have a lot of discretion when it comes to changing direction.

Are you taking full advantage of your hyphen, or are you pretending that it doesn’t exist?

( Photo by meddygarnet )

10 Responses to What Are You Doing With the “Hyphen” That Will be on Your Tombstone?

  1. This article was a great reminder of what I felt when I reached 50 some years back and then at 60. It is time for me, now. I paid my dues, worked for a living, putting a roof over my children’s head, putting food on the table, dealing with the attitude of fellow workers, who didn’t care how they effected others, got rid of the dead beat husband, etc.
    Now i do things I like, I have learned the value of my time, I say NO to those who impose on me, I don’t feel guilty getting up late, I am not rushing to hit a deadline. Not to say I don’t have goals but my bucket list. I am more in tune with my body even if my figure is not prefect. I listen and know when to make a response or not, but I do let my views forth while tolerating an opposing view. Spreading my love of books to others even in this age of everything tech. Decided to work on election board again to get a better feel of political climate of neighborhood since my local politicians can’t be found on times I am available.
    Read and heard somewhere that at 50, you get to start your life again at your terms with the wisdom learned over the years in the mistakes made and in one of the Asian countries people at 60 are to be treasured, soI have the best years to come. All I ask of others is to share my life without putting a limitation on me as the best is yet to come.

  2. Hi Maria – I’ve found what you’re saying to be true, at least for me. As I’ve gotten older, life really has gotten better. Since our kids are grown there’s less pressure on us to take care of them, plus they help get things done. Meanwhile we’ve actually been going out on double dates with our kids and their significant others, which is unexpected and really cool. I’ve also been blessed to have a strong, stable marriage, which makes all the difference in the world.

    We feel like we’re on the right path. But when I look at others our age, I see a lot of people in turmoil. Not just people dealing with problems related to making a living, but also with bad marriages, health issues, substance abuse and limited opportunity. It makes me even more thankful to be me, and I’ve never been happier to be me. Even with problems I’ve had over the years, when I look back on my life and at where I’m at right now, everything worked out – problems and all. In fact, the problems were usually what created the major improvements. I’ve learned that problems are mostly a signal to make changes.

    One thing that I have noticed as a general observation is that people mired in problems are often change-resistant. No matter what happens, they focus on preserving the status quo in life. That’s not a benefit in my experience, but a form of sentencing yourself to an unhappy life. As Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, each time expecting a different result. No matter what your age, you have to be ready to be flexible and resilient. I think a lot of people understand that change is part of life, but they still don’t react to it, at least not in a positive way.

  3. Great post, Kevin. Too many of us get too caught up in the things that don’t matter. I enjoyed, in particular, the focus on Quality over Quantity, and Eternal over Secular. Bold post, with a message that we all need to hear.

  4. Hi Fritz – I have to credit my pastor for putting these ideas in my head. I’ve found that life is a lot deeper when we contemplate both our mortality and eternity. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day details of life, or in the confrontation du juor. But sometimes we need to step back and consider the Bigger Picture, and realize that we’re only part of it, not the main players.

  5. Great article, Kevin. As always!
    A few years ago I had a HUGE wake-up call. I had a doctor tell me if I didn’t get treatment for an illness, I would die within a couple of years. I got treatment but it really did bring things into ‘high relief’, if you will. Knowing you might have only a year or so left and would die earlier than your parents died make you decide to get on with whatever you need to do for yourself.
    The wake-up call also refocused my faith in Christ. I have always believed in God and to some extent in Jesus, but this crisis refocused my faith like a laser beam!
    I recently retired from my ‘day job’, which was wearing me down. I was probably the best one at that particular job skill but I was becoming burnt out and bored to tears. It even affected my health!
    I inherited a property in the country and am fixing it up and will move there within the next month or so. Although I am a Christian, I am not ‘churchy’ but I will join a church when I move. Once the packing and moving is over, I will have time to focus on some of my main talents: talents which are not stressed in our educational system: art, photography, digital design, research, writing and more.
    I was told growing up that artists are all weirdo failures who starve to death. It seems to me that most of our current day artists make a living doing advertising work, web design or gaming design and CGI.
    I have often said if we took the money made on advertising during the Super Bowl and other ad rich venues and put it to use in medical research, ecological research, education, etc., we could solve many of the world’s problems much more quickly.
    But we are a consumer driven society that is consuming itself to death.

  6. Hi Mary – I often think that God sends us crisis to get us to focus on what’s truly important. That’s always been true in my life. Don’t worry about not being churchy, it doesn’t define your faith. The pastor at a church we used to attend once said that the most important component of our faith is our prayer life. That’s when we communicate with God and learn to depend on Him. I fully agree.

    I like the “artists are weird” description, because that’s how it was viewed in the world I came up in. It was a good while before I finally admitted to my family that I was a blogger. Most people today still don’t get that it’s a real thing. Do what lights a fire in your life and you’ll be heading in the right direction!

    That said, I think that a close faith walk with God makes following your passion more doable. If we ultimately rely on God’s provision, then taking new paths is less intimidating. My motto these days is “Have faith, and go forward.”

  7. I like your motto, Kevin. There are things in my life that have worked out far better than I ever dreamed. My worry was all for naught. But there are others where I was very confident, and it didn’t work out at all. We never know what life is going to throw at us, be it financial difficulties, relationship issues, health issues, you name it. There’s a whole host of “issues” out there that any one of us can collide with at any time. So, to reiterate, being flexible, open-minded, and, as Maria Rose stated, taking care of yourself and your family is the key to a better future. I think it’s the boy scouts motto that says “Be Prepared”. Sorry for the quotes if that’s not exactly correct. For the most part, I can look back at my hyphen-time and be at peace. For the times that I’m not at peace…I’m human and have made mistakes.

  8. Hi Bev – I’ve discovered the very same thing about worry. In fact, I regret all the times I’ve spent worrying. Everything I worried about eventually disappeared. Calvin Coolidge said something to the effect that “If you’re walking down the road and up in the distance you see ten troubles in your path, nine of them will fall to the wayside before you get there.” I don’t know much about Calvin Coolidge, but I’ve found that those are words to live by. Philippians 4:6-7 says “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus”.

    I tend to be naturally anxious, if that’s possible, but I’ve learned to take action whenever that happens. Dale Carnegie said “Inaction breeds doubt and fear, action breeds confidence and courage.” So I use a combination of prayer and action to deal with my worries. It really works! Add in flexibility and resilience, and you start to find ways to work around problems. (As you might guess, my office is cluttered with inspirational sayings to keep my on track – but you use whatever works!)

  9. Kevin,
    I enjoyed this post for several reasons. The hyphen (-) is so small yet it was our entire life. Right on.

    You are right….Time is the most precious commodity we have. It is finite, yet most of us are quite wasteful with it. Heck I’d like to have a penny for every hour the average person spends tethered to their cellphones, emails and texting.

    A useful exercise….for an entire day…at the end of each hour write down what you actually did in that hour. The results are eye-opening. We aren’t as busy and productive as we like to think.

    Our experiences and talents, in fact our entire lives are just self-limiting beliefs about ourselves that we believe to be true. We take it all to serious…life is an adventure….live it

    I heard a quote the other day…..that hit home. I’m paraphrasing
    ….Don’t commit to your definition of yourself for more than a few hours.
    I liked it…that kind of thought will keeps us out of ruts, boxes, that we strive to put ourselves into and then throw away the key.

    Judge

  10. Hi Judge – In recent years I’ve made it a point to “count my blessings”. When I says my prayers at the end of the day (or in the morning) I recount what I’ve accomplished, and the daily blessings I’m thankful for. I focus mainly on the important things I did that day, and ignore the stuff that I did to fill the hours or keep busy. It also reminds me of the things I didn’t do, and where I need to improve. Not only does it lift my spirits, but it also motivates me to do more the next day. As you said, time is the most important commodity that we have, so we all have a responsibility to use it as wisely as possible. That doesn’t mean we have to constantly be productive (whatever that means), but that we should strive to be productive where it matters most, and to do it each day.

    I like the advice given by so many success gurus of getting the important things done early in the day. When you do, it’s easier to kick back later and downshift a bit, without feeling guilty. You’ll know that you moved yourself forward in some significant way(s), even if you took it easy later. I guess that’s the essence of balance, being productive, while still having time to smell the roses. We need both.

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