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In a Heartbeat

Don Southworth

I’VE BEEN ENGAGING IN the same end-of-the-year ritual for decades. Right after Christmas, I take a day or two—preferably away from home—to reflect, pray, meditate and write in my journal about the past year and the year that lies ahead.

It’s a time for me to think about what I’ve done, what I haven’t done and what I hope to do in the new year. In this review, I include my financial, spiritual, emotional and physical lives. I reset my portfolio allocation, take an inventory of my assets—financial and otherwise—and decide what I want to focus on over the next year.

At the end of 2022, I chose to go to the beach for a night and sit by the ocean as I did this. I thought about where I was at the beginning of 2022 and what had changed. I thought about three colleagues who were alive in December 2021. One was planning on retiring in June. She fell from a ladder as she came down from her attic, broke her neck and died in February. Another had retired in June 2021. He was a fit runner. He dropped dead of a heart attack this past July. Another gem of a man retired last summer at age 71. He was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer one month later and died in October.

Life can change in a heartbeat. All the financial and family plans we’ve made, and all the dreams we hope to realize one day, don’t come true because one day never comes. Thus is the reality of life and death—a reality we ignore or deny at our own peril, whether it’s our finances or any other aspect of our life.

This realization is easy to intellectualize but sometimes hard to internalize, as I was reminded the week after New Year’s Day. At the end of 2022, I registered for Medicare because I turn age 65 in March. I had already helped my wife do so in October without any problem—which is why I was a little peeved when I received a letter from the Social Security Administration on Jan. 2 saying it couldn’t process my application until it had an original copy of my birth certificate. I huffed and puffed, and went off to look for it.

I didn’t find it with the birth certificates for the rest of the family, so I checked to see if it was in my adoption file. I was adopted at birth and began searching for my biological roots—with limited success—after my son was born 35 years ago.

Sure enough, my birth certificate was in my adoption file. That led me to check something on the internet. I’ll spare you all the details. But, to my surprise, I found the name and location of my biological sister and found pictures of my biological mother, whom I never met. I knew my mom was dead, but I didn’t know my sister was alive or where she lived. I do now. My heartbeat didn’t stop, but it definitely started pounding a lot harder and maybe missed a beat or two.

My sister and I have since talked on the phone, and I hope one day that we’ll meet. My life was changed forevermore when I saw that picture of my mom and sister—the first such picture I’d ever seen. Almost all of the spiritual work I have done in my life points back to one truth: Stay in the moment and savor each breath. Or follow the words attributed by some to James Dean: “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.”

That’s good counsel for all of us, especially those of us who are in the financial thinking and planning business. Because it can all change in a heartbeat.

Don Southworth is a semi-retired minister, consultant and tax preparer living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He recently completed his Certified Financial Planner education. Don is passionate about the intersection between spirituality and money, and he encourages people to follow their callings wherever they lead. Follow Don on Twitter @Calltrepreneur and check out his earlier articles.

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