In the entry I included recently about Closing the Circle by Eugene O’Kelly, one of the things I found most touching was the fact that when Eugene was close to death, he quickly realized who was most important to him. To get to this he first made a list of people who he called “Fifth Circle” people:

A few days after the diagnosis had been confirmed,I sat down at the dining-room table and drew this diagram. The outermost circle was made up of classmates, acquaintances, neighbours, people who had enriched my life just by being in it. When I sat down to list all the people who merited inclusion, I was astounded to see that it came to almost one thousand. An unbelievable number.

When he had to decide who to spend his short remaining time with, he thought about it this way:

Given my natural thoroughness, I had to remind myself how easy it could be to spend lots of time with the outer circle, which would ultimately be at the expense of the inner circles. I thought about how, during my previous life [before his diagnosis with brain cancer], I might have unconsciously been too consumed by the outermost circle. At work, with constant demands on my time, I’d got into the habit of meeting with certain people — good people, but nonetheless fifth-circle people. Was it necessary to have breakfast with them four times a month? I could have done less of that…

Perhaps I could have found time, in the last decade, to have had a weekday lunch with my wife more than . . . twice? Where had I found the nerve to press so hard for our firm to rework its culture, encouraging our partners and employees to live more balanced lives, when my own was out of balance? I realised that being able to count a thousand people in that fifth circle was not something to be proud of. Please don’t misunderstand: the people who populate it are worthwhile, and belong in the first circle of other people. They’re just not the people who should have consumed the time and energy that they did for me. I moved further inward and I marvelled at how many Perfect Moments I was having.

Any way of categorizing people in your life can may difficult and seem cold, but think about what you are doing if you don’t consider this: you are making the decision anyway. Everyday we have moments we can spend with people. We eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, study, go to class, talk, play, drive, vacation and work with other people or by ourselves everyday. We get to decide who we invite and who we say “no” to. How do we pick? How do we decide when to say “no”? Sometimes we do it unconsciously. I am guilty of this. Sometimes we do it consciously but without reason. I am guilty of this too. How about this though, as a third option: we choose to invite or say “no” to people based on principle and our deepest loves and passions. We choose what we believe in and then we choose who we spend time with based on that. Family members, friends, classmates, acquaintances, neighbors, patients, congregation members, students and mentorees are all just people. We all have a choice and I hope I choose who I spend my time with very wisely. One of my favorite quotes related to this is from the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens and is from an Anglican bishop:

When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world;

As I grew older and wiser I realized the world would not change.

And I decided to shorten my sights somewhat and change only my country. But it too seemed immovable.

As I entered my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I sought to change only my family, those closest to me, but alas they would have none of it.

And now here I lie on my death bed and realize (perhaps for the first time) that if only I’d changed myself first, then by example I may have influenced my family and with their encouragement and support I may have bettered my country, and who knows I may have changed the world.

And last, to drive home the point, is a quote from Confucius which I have referred to often:

To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.