“The quality of each moment depends not on what we get from it, but on what we bring to it. I treat no moment as ordinary, no matter how mundane or routine it appears.”
– Dan Millman, No Ordinary Moments
This is a brief story not about me, but of a different man named Steve. He is a highly successful financial adviser who has a large and beautiful home in one of the most affluent communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Handsome, smart, highly personable, and almost always upbeat, Steve is an early morning fixture at an area high end gym I work out at. He has an attractive, strong, highly centered and emotionally supportive wife, two extremely well-adjusted children, and loads of friends.
A professionally-focused guy who works very hard, Steve is always trying to better himself. It’s pretty common to see him at the gym with a thick manual in his hands as he is invariably studying for an exam at an evening course in finance. Steve also enjoys his leisure time immensely, particularly in nearby Lake Tahoe. Steve grew up in the UK, was a rugby player during his formative years while spending time in Asia Pacific, and 30 years later is extremely physically fit. Tough Mudders? Steve eats them for breakfast.
A master at positively reframing negative situations, Steve has a pile of wisdom, seemingly far beyond his 50 years. In fact I’ve only seen Steve feeling down twice: once when he was in the process of changing brokerages before joining a well-known firm, and the other time while renovating his new house and running into an unending series of unanticipated costly surprises.
One day in late February of this year we all saw Steve at the gym bench pressing a ridiculous amount of weight followed by laughing with his fellow gym goers. And then a few days later we didn’t see him…for awhile. But since people regularly appear and disappear during the early morning workout hours based on travel schedules, injuries, or having the nerve to not awaken at 5:00 a.m., most of us didn’t notice it. But then one morning a friend named Jeff came my way and asked, “Hey, did you hear about Steve?”
Steve had contracted what he thought was a very bad flu and then fell unconscious. His wife immediately brought him to a hospital in San Mateo, and he quickly ended up at Stanford, where doctors diagnosed Steve with Hepatitis B, which he apparently had been carrying around for many years and didn’t know about it. Because his liver was poised to fail within 72 hours, if no replacement liver was found that would be a match for Steve, he would die. It was unfathomable to us how a fixture of health like Steve could have fallen victim to such a rare disease and be in such a precarious condition.
Through miraculous hurdles and due to his excellent physical shape, Steve got moved to the top of the national donor list. The doctors at Stanford performed a successful liver transplant surgery. After a few very stressful days for his family and friends, Steve regained consciousness.
To be clear, it’s not like Steve and I were close friends. I would call us acquaintances. But I had known him for many years, and had respected and highly admired him. Also, a true confession since I’m only human: I was definitely jealous of him as well. In the words of another gym goer, Steve was “the IT guy.” That is IT as in the guy you want to be like, not “Information Technology guy.”
In any event, on a sunny and warm Monday afternoon in early March I visited Steve at Stanford as he was recuperating from his surgery. He looked pale but otherwise healthy. However Steve was most definitely not in positive spirits, which while rare was not surprising given the circumstances. As usual his wife was a rock of positive energy and strength.
I spent all of two minutes in the room with him. The time just wasn’t right for a visit. The good news is that less than 24 hours later, Steve’s doctors released him from the hospital. Apparently that first evening he enjoyed a movie night and take-out food with his family. They laughed, relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company.
48 hours later, while working on a project at Salesforce in San Francisco, I received a text from Jeff informing me that Steve had experienced a major setback and to call him. When I got down to the always busy lobby at 50 Fremont Street, Jeff told me during a barely audible phone conversation that very early on Wednesday morning, Steve had apparently experienced some form of violent seizure, and barely made it to the bathroom on the first floor of his home where he had been sleeping. That’s where his wife found him. Steve was dead.
While in reality the deterioration in Steve’s health took decades, we all thought he went from vibrant and alive to gone in a matter of days. I was numb, as was everyone with whom I came in contact. It’s the typical human reaction. “How could this happen to a guy as healthy as Steve?” And then the statement nobody utters out loud but everyone thinks, “Could this happen to me?”
I will never forget the shell-shocked look of hundreds of Steve’s family and friends at the funeral service the following Sunday. His brother, one of his closest friends, his boss — all three made the kind of heartfelt remarks that only come through having a unique human connection. It was perhaps the most touching and beautiful funeral ceremony I have ever attended.
I’m forgetting who called Steve a “peaceful warrior” and told the audience how much he had been moved by Dan Millman’s books for many years. But later that evening I had an A-HA moment. I had forgotten that a few years before, Steve had suggested to me at the gym that I read “Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” Dan’s first book. As is my habit, I purchased the Kindle version and let it macerate on my Kindle without reading it. However, in my own defense my wife and I did watch the movie with Nick Nolte, based on the book. The spiritual themes of gaining present moment awareness, serving others, and recognizing the sanctity of our allegedly boring everyday existence, were right up my alley.
The meaning I took from the A-HA moment that Sunday evening was that I needed to dig more deeply into Dan Millman’s teachings and learn about the wisdom Steve gained from him. I have since read his first three books, the first two of which are a hybrid of autobiography interspersed with fiction. The third book is written entirely in third person and is a traditional personal development tome. It is titled, “No Ordinary Moments.”
Dan comes across as a transformed and enlightened individual teaching a compelling set of principles to live a life of meaning and inner peace. I highly recommend his works. In this book he emphasizes the framework of “the three selves” as a guide for gaining the most effective inner direction. He asserts that at the heart of our essence is our Basic Self, almost a childlike nature that regulates our physical systems and serves as our subconscious mind. Then comes our Conscious Self, operating as our adult logical brain. And at the top of the pyramid is our Higher Self, which is the most difficult part of ourselves to tap into on a regular basis, and which provides higher levels of wisdom. We gain our highest potential when these three selves work in harmony, which is particularly challenging given the potential for constant conflict between the Basic and Conscious Selves. Lest this seem too esoteric, let’s see if you can relate to your logical mind telling yourself at your favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant that you’ve had enough to eat while something habitual and physical inside of you licks that big old plate of pasta carbonara completely clean. And then you shake your head and mutter, “What the hell did I just do?”
As for me, in last week’s article I mentioned how I’m trying to cultivate a practice of becoming more aware. Arguably, recognizing the special nature of each moment, even the seemingly most mundane ones we all experience each day, is at the heart of awareness.
Thank you for your wisdom Steve, and for being a great example and teacher who lived a very complete albeit way too short life filled with extraordinary moments. I still think about you often. May peace be with you.
P.S. I may have reported some of Steve’s story inaccurately, as much of it is based on perspectives I have gained from a few different people. But the essence is factual.