Reflect More, Risk More, Do More that Will Live On
By Leah Lancione
In one of his classic sermons, Tony Campolo, a sociology professor and well-known Christian speaker, describes a study of 50 people over the age of 95 who were asked what they would do differently if given the opportunity to live life over again. There were many answers, but three struck a chord with the majority of respondents: reflect more, risk more and do more things that would live on after they are dead.
Campolo explains that the respondents answered that they would reflect more if given a life re-do; they would “stop, think and consider with intensity” the things they took for granted the first time around. He says people fail to focus on or reflect upon the things that have real personal significance. Offering his personal take on reflection, he expresses gratitude for the teachings of Christianity.
Whether or not you are a Christian, Campolo recommends the following instructions for reflecting on life: stop, listen, pay attention and see that there is much more to cherish. He says that people do not enter into life with the passion, fervor and intensity they should. “Most people are absent when they’re present.” Campolo quips about how people walk around “dead” or “zombie-like” most of the time. He illustrates that by describing people packed into an elevator, staring up at the numbers until the door opens. People should not let life be just the “meaningless passage of time,” he says.
Respondents in the study also acknowledged they would have reflected more on their families. Using Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” as a reference, Campolo cites the scene in which the main character, Emily Webb, is given the chance to relive her 12th birthday. Seeing that her family doesn’t fully appreciate or relish the moment, she asks the audience “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” Campolo believes that people, if given the chance to do things over again, would treasure their husband, wife and children fully. To him, every moment, every memory made, every life experience is an opportunity to be joyful.
The second quality most respondents cited was they would risk more. Campolo recalls playing stickball with broomsticks, all stolen from neighborhood mothers in West Philadelphia. On one occasion, he challenged “somebody” to go into the police station to retrieve all the broomsticks confiscated by the cops. Dared by a friend to do it himself, Campolo said he slipped into the station undetected and accomplished the deed. He remembered having an adrenaline high for months. “You can go on the highest roller coaster, but there is no exhilaration or hyper-sense of thrill like robbing a police station,” he says. Not actually condoning criminal risk-taking, Campolo encourages people to take necessary gambles in life because the 95-year-olds in the study didn’t examine their lives in terms of all the successes or failures, but by the risks not taken or what could have been. They realized that a lot of things they may have deemed a success or failure weren’t so important in retrospect. Conveying that risk is a way of living life to the fullest. Campolo uses the Star Trek mantra that people, whether young, old or at a pivotal crossroads in their life, should “boldly go where no man has gone before.”
- You can’t have friends without risk.
- You can’t engage in a marriage without risk.
- You can’t have a fulfilling career or purpose without risk.
“How many of us are going to live out our lives in quiet desperation because we’re too afraid to take a risk?” he asks. “How many of you have jobs you hate or have been tempted to leave a situation that provides no joy?” Campolo says we all have a calling to “not play it safe,” but to live out our dreams and visions. Quoting the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Campolo urges individuals to “live dangerously.” Nietzsche proclaimed, “Believe me! The secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously (www.thinkexist.com)
Similarly, Psychology Today magazine addressed the issue of assessing life regrets in a 2010 article. It described a study showing people often regret not pursuing their dream job or career. “Instead, they chose a career path that was more practical, or one that would pay better. They knew early on what kind of work they felt passionate about, but it just seemed too risky to pursue.” Furthermore, Campolo says the 95-year-olds in the study he cited did not assess what they had won or lost in life, but the risks not taken throughout life that could have led to something fulfilling. “Do exciting things with your life,” he advises.
Do More Things That Will Live on After You’re Dead
Campolo notes a point his pastor made in a sermon to highlight the last most prevalent answer in the survey about doing more things that would live on: “One of these days you’re going to die. When you were born you cried but everyone else was happy. Now, when you die, is everybody else going to cry while you’re the only one who’s happy?” The pastor observed that it all depends on “whether you lived for a title or a testimony.” Or as Campolo put it, “What are people going to put on your gravestone? Are they going to talk about the titles you held or are they going to stand around your grave and recall how you made a difference in their lives?”
Campolo stresses that you don’t necessarily have to do something spectacular, just something that has a positive effect on someone else’s life. He uses the example of a teacher who took a struggling student under her wing because the student had lost his mother. Over the years the student sent the teacher notes of his achievements—first about his high school graduation, then college and finally about how he became a successful doctor. When the former student was to be married, he sent a final letter to the teacher inviting her to sit in the place where his mother would have been, saying she was the only family he had left.
Campolo ends by declaring, “If you can’t learn from 50 old folks over the age of 95 you can’t learn from anybody at all.” The message is clear: don’t let life pass you by. Learn from the mistakes of those who have been through the ups and downs of life and let today be the first day of the rest of your life. Live life to the fullest; love your family, follow your dreams and do your best to leave the world a better place.
Tony Campolo is professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University, a former faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder and president of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education. For more information, visit his websites www.tonyCampolo.org and RedLetterChristians.org