“That was great, thank you,” said a woman in the first row. Like most of the folks in the room, she was an incoming student, and pain-in-the-ass smart. “As I’m sure you know, we’re all going to die. What’s the point of putting in all the effort to be ‘well?’”
I stood there waiting for a someone to yell “KIDDING!” But they all just sat there.
They actually wanted an answer.
“Well, yeah,” I said. “Thanks for the reminder.”
They laughed a little, while I looked down at my shoes. I’m gonna die, just like everyone else. Why not get wasted? Why not begin every day with a coffee roll from Dunkin’ Donuts? Why not two? Why not have sloppy, anonymous sex in parking lots? Why not give in to every desire, make the most scintillating choice in every moment, die young, and leave an attractive corpse? Why not?!
“Well, there’s a few reasons. Eating well, exercising, and generally not abusing yourself means you’re more comfortable and able to do things like carry groceries.” They nodded politely. “Also, unless you’ve got a trust fund, acting on every impulse is apt to leave you riddled with disease, homeless, and smelling like crap.”
They giggled (most of them, anyway - not the ones with trust funds).
I was tense, standing there. I made myself relax a little. I got this.
“Why bother? The reason is the first minute,” I said, and I stood up straight, the way you do when you finally cut through the bullshit and get to the truth.
“Even if you sleep late, eventually every day begins, and in the first minute of each day you have to face yourself. Day after day, until you die, you will wake up and remember what you’ve done. Memories of what you did the night before will bubble to the surface. Those memories will come with feelings. If you binged on ice cream or box wine or cocaine, that will be one of your first thoughts, and it will come with a weight of shame, maybe even self-hate.
“Those feelings may be subtle when you’re young and you think you have all the time in the world to turn things around. But unless you practice treating yourself well, soon you’ll be in your 50s and you’ll wake up and the pain of that first minute will be so intense that the day ahead will feel like a prison sentence.”
The room was quiet and still, save some sniffles.
“BUT!” I said, “If you practice treating yourself well, then in your first minutes you’ll remember that you met a goal. You’ll remember that you ate food that nourished you, and that you moved and played with the body you’re so lucky to have. Those positive memories will come with good feelings—with deep, meaningful pleasure. A sense of peace. Accomplishment. Rightness.
“Practice living with intention and treating yourself well. Bother to care for and about yourself and your body, and your first minutes will feel like new beginnings. Ignore your body’s needs, neglect yourself, or continue to justify not treating yourself well, and your first minutes will be torture.
“And here’s the thing: Your first minutes are unavoidable. Even if you graduate and get rich, you can’t ever outsource your first minute. You can’t hire someone to deal with it for you. Yes, you’re gonna die. We’re all gonna die. But until that hammer drops, you alone have to experience the first minute of every single day between now and then. We’re talking tens of thousands of times. Dying only happens once. Relative to those thousands of first minutes, dying is small potatoes.
“I’ve spent years harming myself and years healing myself. I’ve had thousands of first minutes that were torture and thousands that were good, and I can tell you that nothing has more of an impact on how we feel about just being alive. Compared to how you feel in your first minutes, it doesn’t matter what degree you have or where you live or how many clubs you join. It doesn’t matter what you do for work or how much money you make. It doesn’t even matter what you weigh or how old you are.”
I looked over at the professor who’d invited me to do the talk. She was smiling so hard I thought her face might break.
“Not to say that stuff has no impact on how you feel about life. Obviously, it does. But unless you treat yourself well and feel well, then it doesn’t matter how much good stuff you’ve got going on, because it’ll all just feel like a fancy box that you live in and resent until you die.”
I let the last sentence land before I asked, “Any other questions?”
I got one more, something about weight loss. That answer was much shorter.
I gave that talk almost 10 years ago. I still get emails from students who were there, saying that what they learned that day had more of an impact on them than anything they went on to learn in four years of college. They’re happier than they might’ve been otherwise, because they live and make choices with an eye toward feeling good in their next first minute.
Kelly Coffey is an ACSM-certified personal trainer who once weighed over 135 kilograms. A version of this piece originally ran on her blog, Strong Coffey. You can follow her on Facebook here.
Here’s to every single one of your remaining first minutes.