The Worst Thing Is To Miss It

Richard Powers

A woman was interviewed in a Stanford study of women surviving, or not surviving, cancer.   She mused philosophically,

      "You know, the worst thing isn't to die.  The worst thing is to have lived, but missed it."

This is one of the Big Picture awarenesses of life.

Here are seven ways that we can miss something:

  • Judging it negatively and pushing it away.
  • Taking it for granted, not really seeing it.
  • Comparing the present moment to a better one in the past, and finding the current moment disappointing.
  • Believing that things will be better in the future, but the present moment isn't there yet.
  • Dismissing something with a sampling mentality. "Been there; done that!"
  • Being impatient with someone, or with oneself.
  • Not absorbing an experience as deeply as we can. Not being as open and receptive as we can be.

    This topic is not the same as wanting to be happy all of the time.  It's not about being a Pollyanna.  It's about having a sharp and clear perception of what is.  If the event that we're perceiving is negative, like a social or political injustice, then yes, we also need to experience that, for what it is.

    But it's harder to see what is good in life, and in people.  Our culture gives all too much encouragement to disapprove, complain and reject.

    This page describes a few ways to help counter our natural tendency to miss a lot of our lives, including the time we spend dancing.

    My teachers in life are anyone I've found who is alive and receptive to the moment — anyone who has the ability, talent or attitude to appreciate what is good in life, art and people.

    Dale Stevens was one of my teachers, although he didn't know it.  He was a film critic for my city's newspaper.  He was usually able to point to a wonderful aspect of a film he just saw.  A film might have some shortcomings, but he would point out character nuances or effective cinematography or something beautiful about the film.  He would help his readers get more out of their moviewatching experience.  He helped his readers appreciate films more.

    It's the opposite of the more typically critical, which was originally titled "Bitchslaps from Scott Weinberg" (which is what most of his reviews were).  Many critics think that finding faults is what a professional critic must do.

    It is all too easy to us to be influenced by critics' disapproving attitudes, so it takes some independence to have a receptive approach to life.  Others might even think you're being too enthusiastic about life, but it's your life, not theirs.  They're the ones who have become bitter cynics, missing most of their life by pushing it away.  You can go in the opposite direction.  But it takes practice, to make receptivity a habit.

                Comparative thinking

    Looking at this dynamic closer, what is the essential process of the disdainful film critic?  Comparative thinking is a part of it, usually comparing the film they watched to the best films they've ever seen, and being disappointed that their current experience pales in comparison.

    Let's say we have a glass of wine.  Do we enjoy that it tastes good?  Or do we evaluate it as not one of the best wines we've had?  If so, we just changed a potentially positive experience into a disappointment.  We missed it.  It's the same with food.  Is it tasty or nutritious or comforting?  Or is it not the best version we've had?

    Our choice of attitude affects both our receptivity (not missing it) and our enjoyment.

    Now if it actually tastes bad, or if an experience is painful, that's different.  Then we acknowledge that fact.  But many people become disappointed with something good because it's not as good as a better version they've once had.

    Some do this with their possessions.  "My phone isn't the latest version – I'm unhappy."  Our consumer culture strongly influences this attitude.  The advertising industry doesn't want us to be happy with who we are, and what we have.  Advertisements train us to compare what we have with what they want us to buy, and be unhappy with what we're lacking.

    It's even worse if we do this with people, instead of appreciating their good qualities.  On the dance floor, you can be disappointed that you don't have one of your favorite partners in your arms, or you can find ways of appreciating your partner for who they are, and not missing that moment.  The same is true for our friends, and especially a life partner.

    You can be disappointed that the DJ isn't playing your favorite dance, or tune, or that the tempo isn't the best tempo.  Or you can find aspects of the experience that you can enjoy and appreciate.  It's your choice.  You can let all of these experiences into your life, or you can push them away.

    Critical thinking is developed at Stanford and other institutions of higher learning, but our sound-byte culture sometimes reduces critical thinking to being negatively judgemental, which is not the same thing.  Our most productive decisions and creations are generated by noticing positive qualities — what works — not by blocking off our receptivity with comparative thinking.

    We can turn around the nosedive that our culture tries to create, and start heading back up.  We can consciously intend to miss less of life, and of people, and appreciate more.

                Pushing It Away

    An even more fundamental way that we miss something is if we have pre-judged that we don't like that kind of thing.  It's too easy to only like what we already like.  People usually want to hear what they already believe.  One of the best ways to expand our life is to be open to new thoughts and experiences.

    Even worse, we could push something away simply because it's not the version that we already know.

    A visitor from another country once complained endlessly about everything and everyone that she encountered in America.  Then she paused to explain, "Well, how can I be expected to like something that I don't already know?!"  Needless to say, she was quite unhappy with life and with people in general, even back home.

    The more possibilities that we are open to, the richer our life becomes.


    Eschatology (from the Greek eschaton, meaning the end of time) is the fairly common belief, held by various cultures and religions for millennia, that everything will be better in the end—when everything that is imperfect will be made perfect.  That of course presumes that it's not good now.  The problem with eschatology is that the good days are always deferred to the future.  All goodness, enlightenment, justice and healing is going to come later.  Not today, but when we get there — when we get to the Promised Land, when our ship comes in.

    One way that we often do this to ourselves is when taking dance classes.  We can spend hours in class feeling that some day we'll be good at this, but at the moment we're not there.  But we are there, in the middle of an enjoyable process, with both body and mind fully engaged, with music, and probably with a dance partner in our arms.  What could be better?!  Relish these moments.

                Double whammy: Perfectionism

    Yes, wanting something to be perfect combines the worst traits of comparative thinking and eschatology.

    This is different from wanting to improve upon something.  Better is better; but perfect is usually impossible.  Chasing after perfection is a prescription for unhappiness and frustration.

    To clarify, it's good to aim high and strive to improve.  But after you've tried your best, how do you feel about the results?  Is perfectionism preventing you from appreciating your improvement?  Is it preventing you from appreciating what's good about your dance partners, despite their imperfections?

    Artists know that there can be true beauty in the imperfect.  And the imperfections are often more interesting than the flawless version.

                Sampling mentality

    Another way that we often dismiss something genuinely good is to complain that we've seen it before, or something like it.  "Been there, done that!"  We've become a sampling culture, bored with something after we've sampled it once.

    If something seems overly familiar, try to find a fresh way to look at it, perhaps from a new perspective.  What else can you notice about it?  Develop ways to look afresh at what has been taken for granted or seen before.  Look for the extraordinary in the ordinary.  But also appreciate the ordinary.

    Sometimes it's as simple as reminding ourselves that just because we've seen it before doesn't mean it's any less important.  If it's a good thing, take a moment to appreciate its true value.


    A part of the process of appreciating something is refraining from pushing it away.  It's intentionally accepting more of life, especially that which we can't change. That's acknowledged in the Serenity Prayer, as some people call it.

            Give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
            courage to change the things that should be changed,
            and the wisdom to know the difference.

    Note that acceptance is given first priority, over changing, and also note the specification of things that should be changed.  It's sometimes tempting to be a busybody, meddling in others' affairs, trying to change them into the way we think they should be.  But maybe their behavior isn't something that needs to be changed.  Maybe we can say to ourselves, "I don't have to catch that ball," and let others be themselves, including the way they like to dance.


    Acceptance also de-stresses our life.  Many books have been written about the harmful effects of stress in our lives, and ways to reduce stress, but the aspect to mention now is that more frequent acceptance of people and events significantly lowers our stress level.

    The tiniest disagreement or glitch in our plans can be made into a big deal if our goal, conscious or unconscious, is to have everything work out in our favor.  But life is rarely exactly the way we want it to be, and people often don't act the way we would like them to.

    Moment to moment, there are aspects of life that we like, and others that we don't.  There are always going to be people who disagree with us, people who do things differently, and things that don't work out.  If we fight against this principle of life, we'll spend most of our life fighting hopeless battles, and be generally unhappy with life.

    What we're doing, if we choose to live life this way, is allowing others' behavior to stress us, which not only disrupts our center, throwing us off-balance and making us unhappy, but is a genuine health risk.  Stress is the emotion with the greatest weight of scientific evidence connecting it to cardiovascular disease, a suppressed immune system, impaired memory and irrational decision-making.

    Our response to this might be, "But I can't help it!  My job is stressful!  This relationship is stressful!"

    No, stress isn't what happens to us (although it often feels that way).  Stress is how we respond to what's happening, and we do have some control over that.

    I have a specific suggestion that works.

    Each time that we say to ourselves, "OK, I can live with that," is a victory over stress.  One can retain relative calm peace of mind, and can continue to operate with all channels open.

    If we can't, then we can't.  Sometimes we must stand firm on an ethical issue.  If Rosa Parks had said, "OK, I can live with that," to sitting in the back of the bus because she was black, the Civil Rights movement wouldn't have benefitted by her taking a firm stand.

    But you'll likely surprise yourself by how often you can say "OK, I can live with that," and be quite happy with the outcome.  Especially in social situations.  And this way, you end up stressing other people less at the same time, thereby helping them be healthier as well.

    This response also keeps you smarter.  Saying "OK, I can live with that" is an automatic first response, like an instantaneous defuser, to prevent negative emotions from hijacking your mind.  You've probably had an experience of doing or saying something stupid while being in a state of being emotionally hijacked, usually with anger.  Your calm mind is much smarter and wiser.  You can always reappraise a situation, if you've succeeded in retaining your mental clarity in the present moment.  That's why you want "OK, I can live with that" to be your automatic first response, to remain clear-headed.  Then "No, actually I can't this time," can then be your second response if necessary, evaluated with a calm clear mind.

    Reducing our stress level is important for our health, but to return to the main topic, acceptance is one of the best ways to miss less of life.


    Another common way that we miss an experience is by being impatient, either with someone or with ourselves.

    Patience is not minding so much if something happens again for the tenth time.  As with de-stressing a situation (above), we can say to ourselves, "OK, I can live with that," then pay full attention to the situation in front of us, fully engaging with the person we're with, instead of allowing impatience to tune them out.

    Especially cultivate patience when taking a dance class.  Both you and your partner want to improve when you practice, not just yourself.  Constantly be aware of small ways that you can help your partner get better.  The best way is being solidly there for them, with your best technique, while being patient, kind and supportive if they're having trouble.

    Then take your improved patience into your work.  Research requires extreme patience, as experiments don't work the first time, research papers get rejected, etc.  Debugging code takes patience.  Then personal relationships, especially with a significant other, will go much better with kind, gentle patience, at all times.  And wait until you have kids!  Patience is one of the major factors in effective parenting, and you don't want to allow impatience to block out those moments with your children.  Those years fly by too fast—don't miss them.

                "Patience is the ability to idle your motor when you feel like stripping your gears."
                                                     — Harvard Professor Barbara Johnson

    Patience is an acknowledged virtue, but saying, "Thou shalt be patient," sounds preachy.  No, I'm not saying you should be patient.  I'm saying that you will be happier, wiser, friendlier (more sociable) and more successful if you cultivate patience.  And you won't miss so many of those moments.


    Now to be the Devil's Advocate we can ask: is this a selfish approach to life, focusing on our own experiences and wanting them to be richer?  No, and this distinction is important.  It's not selfish because a large part of our life is how we interact with people, since we're social animals.  And the result of fully and completely experiencing someone is as good for them, including our dance partners, as it is for us.

    Do you know about the 100 Blessings?  This Jewish tradition encourages us to make a hundred blessings a day.  That's a lot of blessings!  By the time the effect of one blessing starts to fade, we would be blessing something else.

    What does this mean, blessing?

    Blessing is a spiritual or psychological act of recognizing, affirming and re-appreciating.  When we bless something or someone, we are encouraged to become aware of them and acknowledge that this thing or person is good.

    When we bless our food, for instance, we acknowledge its value to us and give thanks for the pleasure and nutrition it provides.  When we bless a person, we see them, admire them, and wish them well.  We make a direct connection with them and bring them into our sphere of consciousness.

    People like to be blessed.  We don't call it that, of course, but that's what fans seek when they ask celebrities for autographs.  To be acknowledged, even in such a small way, is a powerful thing.

    We don't need to be famous or powerful to share our blessings.  We each have the power to share an emotion with another human being.  We can brighten their day, or we can make them feel bad, by how we interact with them.  When we shine our good will on them, they feel better.  And we in turn benefit because they will then reflect it back to us.  In the act of blessing, we are blessed.

    This clearly relates to the two-way interaction of dance partnering, including during dance classes, and being in a dance community.

    Dancing is the perfect place to practice being fully aware, observant, receptive, open-minded, patient and fully engaged in the moment, while valuing others' truths, even if they're different from the way we like to think.  Don't miss what the experience has to offer.

                An Eighth Way: Not Showing Up

    After all of our best intentions to be more aware and receptive, and not miss the moment, it's all for naught if we don't get up out of our comfortable chair.  It's all too easy to feel lazy and want to stay home.

    And it's easy to say "I'm too busy."  As Lao Tzu wrote, "Time is a created thing. To say 'I don't have time,' is like saying, 'I don't want to.'"

    You can read these Web pages on the multidimensional benefits from social dancing.  You can agree with them.  But nothing will improve unless we get up, go out and do it, including going out dancing.  Be more active.  Show up more often.  The worst thing would be to miss it.

    Top photo: Rodin's Burghers of Calais at Stanford University.

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