Working Smarter

What We Can All Learn About Really Living from the Sudden Death of My Friend—While We Still Can

Posted by Joe Robinson

girls promo copy copy.jpg

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL JUSTICE

Michael Justice was one of the best photographers on the planet and one of my best friends. He went to work a couple days after New Year’s to get some pictures of ships at the Port of Los Angeles and never came home. The helicopter he was in crashed into the sea within sight of his home, and an investigation is under way.

The shock of a close friend vanishing off the planet after an accident is staggering. It’s so sudden the brain can’t process what took place. I had just talked to him the last day of the year, and we made plans for the new year. There was plenty more to talk about, but we would get to that next time. Except now there is no next time, only a gaping void.

WHEN THERE IS NO NEXT TIME

This is what I would like to share with you now, the state of not having a next time, and what that means while we have friends still with us, as well as the importance of using our next times and our present moment to live fully on this earth while we can, because he sure did. No one I know lived a fuller life. You can see by his photos here that he got around, to some five dozen countries, capturing the beauty and challenge of life along the way.

Life wasn’t a lukewarm affair for Michael. It was an event to be excited about. He wouldn't just say, "Hey," when he saw you, he would shout out your name--"JOE!"-- like he was hailing you from across the street.

He had what so many of us lose, the eagerness and enthusiasm of youth. We get beat down, talk quieter, worry about what others think, get more jaded, stay home. Mike had his demons too, like we all do, but he had something special that helped him override them.

THE POWER OF POSITIVE AFFECT

I saw it on our first adventure together. We met when I was doing a story on Zimbabwe. Mike and I got on the plane to our destination, and before we could take our seats in coach, a stewardess came up and said, “Wow, you guys look like you’re having a good time. Where you going?”

“AFRICA!!” Mike boomed, followed by the Justice laugh. Everyone on the plane now knew our destination. “Right around the corner isn’t it?” he said, laughing. 

“That’s a long trip,” she said with big smile. “You guys need to be upgraded to first class.” What? We were ecstatic. I didn’t know what had happened at the time. It was before I knew the science of something powerful and magical, something Mike had in abundance. It’s called POSITIVE AFFECT.

It’s the visible sign in your expression and body language of optimism, fun, and playfulness. When you have it, the world wants in. It’s the real law of attraction. Even lab rats are attracted to other lab rats that exhibit playfulness. It was Mike’s positive affect—the laugh, the loud, upbeat voice, that attracted the stewardess to the good vibes, and we were off in style.

We had plenty of adventures on that trip. One time, we were on a lake in a rickety motorized canoe and we ran over a sunken tree. A branch ripped a hole a hair above the waterline in a lake swarming with crocodiles and hippos. “You don’t have to worry,” Mike said to me. “There’s not enough meat on your bones.”

As I look back now, the most memorable event of the trip was not tracking the rhinoceros on foot in the bush or the power of the “smoke that thunders,” Victoria Falls. It was making a great friend, one who would be there for me whenever I needed. We would share our challenges in work and life, next ideas and destinations, and lift each other up. 

camel copy.jpg

THE SOULFUL SOJOURNER 

Mike and I were soul brothers—outdoors, adventure, exploring, and traveling the world. We also connected because he was a seeker, too. Photography wasn’t his real job. He was a seeker of light. His life was a quest for light, light that reveals what we are all too busy and stressed to see, the beauty all around us and within us—the little things we don’t notice, because we aren’t present for our lives. He also brought us images from realms of change and conflict, from the L. A. riots to Bosnia. He was our eyes, taking us to the heart of the matter.

Color is how our eyes perceive how energetic light waves are. Think about that for a second. Light is very magical stuff, literally coloring our world. Mike was an artist with this medium and capturing his subjects within the moment of illumination, like his photos of Mother Teresa, that in turn illuminated us. He took our eyes off our problems, our own self-consciousness to see truth and value.

Mother Teresa.jpg

Michael wasn’t a religious guy, but he was as soulful as it gets. His life was a pilgrimage to find the spirit of humanity, the wonder of nature, the will to survive, the need to believe, with images that could reveal us to ourselves and redeem us from our default survival instinct to the negative and the dark side.

Did you know we need three positive to one negative experience to stay on the positive side? That’s how powerful the negative is. In a relationship, the ratio is five to one. So you have to work at bringing the positive into your life, and Michael was a master at that.

THE QUEST FOR WHAT'S RIGHT AT HAND

Some of his most amazing work came on a project documenting pilgrimage sites around the world and the faithful visiting them. He journeyed to India, Israel, Fatima in Portugal and elsewhere, capturing the devout as they desperately sought an answer, a cure, a miracle, a reason for things like why I am writing this story. He was drawn to that project because of his own inner quest for answers.

He loved to talk about philosophy and what it’s all about, whether he was with me or a longshoreman at a bar. He drew strength from some of the ideas of the pilgrims he chronicled. Impermanence, for instance, being the ultimate reality of life.

IMG_0563.jpg

In his search, he found what he was looking for, what we’re all looking for, we just don’t know it. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell was once asked what the meaning of life is. He said, it’s not about meaning, it’s the rapture of being alive we’re after.

Michael found plenty of that through his passionate love for photography, nature, travel, people, and life itself. He was a man of the people. The bear hug, The storytelling. The infectious laugh. We’ve got the preposition wrong. It’s not meaning OF life we’re looking for. It’s meaning IN life.

WHAT ARE FRIENDS FOR?

My friend didn’t just capture the light of others. He was a giver of light. He made us all laugh, try things we shouldn’t have, and crave his next barbecue.

This is what friends do for us. They warm a cold world. My big regret now is that I didn’t see him as much as I should have in recent years. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own concerns that we let excuses like traffic and time get in the way, when great friends are irreplaceable. We think there’s always time, but, as I found, there isn't. The drive, the time, it's all inconsequential when you will never see or hear your friend again.

Boreno_boat copy_1.jpg

Studies show that in a busy working world, friends are the first to go, and the ones who suffer most. But we also suffer when we don’t keep our friendships active. They are precisely the tonic we need, since play is one of the best stress buffers. Stress suppresses the play equipment in your brain, making it hard to do the very thing you need to shake the false danger signal. It’s hard to get out of your head and play when a part of the ancient brain thinks you’re going to die that second. That means we don’t get out, we flake out, and wallow in our self-talk just when diversion is the way out. Difficult times are the best times to seek out your friends.

Talking out thoughts with friends brings perspective, consolation, and returns you to reality, because thoughts aren’t real; only experience is. Stress conflates every problem into a catastrophe. Our friends talk us down.

Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to your friends. They are only too happy to help or listen. We’re too distant and too under the spell of the mental block of busyness in this culture, and it has to stop. What is the work about if not to allow us the time to spend with those who make the journey worthwhile? What is a friend if we are a stranger? 

WE CAN ONLY LIVE NOW, NOT LATER

Mike was an amazing friend—generous, funny, supportive, humble, and a force of life. His life is a call to action for all of us to hold our friends closer and live our lives fuller. Here’s what I propose:

1. Call your friends more often. Just to talk. Not text. We think we have to have a reason to call, especially guys. The reason is friendship. If you live far away, get on Skype video, and be there more fully with them. It’s much better for the friendship to see and almost be in the same room with them. 

barber, india copy.jpg

2. Don’t say, “Let’s get together soon,” knowing you won’t. Set a date, put it on your calendar.

3. Tell people what you admire about them. Don’t leave things unsaid. Just a little admiration can go a long way. I admired Michael’s commitment to living the self-determined life and his tenacity. He was a battler.

4. Don’t flake on your life. Use Michael’s example and go for the experience. Experiences are where the juice of life is, and Michael knew that. When he had downtime, he’d head out to the Eastern Sierra or some other getaway or dive into one of his favorite hobbies or interests, usually with others. Experiences make us happier than material things. They can’t be compared to anyone else’s experience because they are your own personal event, so they don’t lose their value through social comparison like objects do.

Researchers have found that 50% of your potential happiness is genetic. Sorry about that. You’re stuck with what you got. Another 10% is circumstance, the state of your health, the environment you’re raised in. That leaves us with 40% we can actually do something about. It falls into a realm known as “intentional activities,” or, in other words, the very experiences that make us happier, which Michael naturally sought out, from social activities and barbecuing to fishing and kayaking.

The two keys to sustainable happiness, says researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon, are initiating intentional activities and sustaining them.

Why are they so important? Because the key to happiness is determining the content of your life. The more we do of that, the happier we are, because that gratifies your three core psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or connection with others.

The great psychologist Erik Erikson, who studied the life stages, said we’re going to have three questions in our final days. They are all about self-determination.

• Did I get what I came here for?

• Did I do what I wanted?

• Was it a good time?

Let’s not wait until the end to get the answers we want. Michael could answer a resounding Yes to all three.

girl with geese for card p copy.jpg

5. Act for no payoff. Do whatever you’re doing just to do it, for the intrinsic reason. Michael dove into all of his passions for internal goals, fun, learning, challenge, expression. The science tells us those are the goals that make us happy.

We are programmed to act only for external goals—money, success, status, fame, beauty. Those things don’t make us happy, the science shows, because they are ephemeral, based on what other people think. That doesn’t do anything for you internally. You don’t really buy it because it’s someone else’s opinion. Lottery winners go back to how they felt before they won the money six months later.

6. Be present for your life and your friends and family. Michael was 100% there when you were with him. Eye contact, really listening, concerned. Put the damn devices down! Life isn’t on a screen or out in the future somewhere. It’s happening now every moment. Be there.

7. Linger. Michael wasn’t in a hurry when he was with you. You never felt rushed talking with him. He was there for you. Lingering is the key to all friendships, adventure, and good storytelling, as Mike knew. That’s when good things happen, and you get below the surface. Michael was unrushed enough to talk to everyone he met, and that’s why he had so many friends.

8. Play more. Playfulness was at the heart of the Justice motor. He worked hard, but knew when to turn it off and have fun. When you get home and are too lazy to get out, don’t fall for the first mood. Don’t let moods manipulate you and shut down your life. Tell yourself, “I can rally,” and say it the way Michael would have boomed it out: I CAN RALLY!

9. Follow the light. We bring more light, more positive affect into our life when we are more positive. How do we do that? Increase our optimism. It’s one of the hidden keys to a happy life, and it’s something we have to be proactive about, since the default is to the negative. Negative moods keep us in a bunker. That’s not living.

Mike India.jpg

Michael Justice on the road in India. Photo: Andrea Makshanoff

THE THREE THINGS THAT WENT WELL EXERCISE

I’d like to share an exercise with you that has been proven to be the most effective tool for increasing optimism. It’s very simple. When your head hits the pillow at night, you think of three things that went well over the course of the day. Maybe someone let you in front of them in traffic and didn’t run you over. Maybe you stopped long enough to see the amazing reds and oranges of a sunset. You were present for your day for a few seconds. Maybe something went well at work.

Then you ask why each of those things happened. I’ve been doing this for a few years now, and you will be amazed the effects that it has. Most of the day consists of neutral to positive experiences, the science shows, but we don’t see them because we’re focused on the bad stuff.

This exercise helps you notice the good things. We are as happy as the most recent positive and novel event we can remember. So we have to keep our memories primed. Your memory is an ongoing status report, telling you whether you like your life or not.

With this exercise, you start noticing as positive events happen during the day and make a note to put it on your list. You begin to notice the patterns of when postive things happen and what you did to make them happen. Already you are crowding out the appearance of all-negative. You go to bed on a high note, thinking about what went well, instead of your problems. I’m usually out by the second item 

Let’s all take Mike’s cue, then, and pay attention, be present, and notice the goodwill, the beauty around us.

That was his gift to us, making us notice. We can keep his spirit alive by participating in our world to the absolute fullest.

 

Tags: living the fullest life, optimism, positive emotions, meaning of life, Michael Justice, great photographers

Subscribe via E-mail

Latest Posts

Posts by category

Follow Me