Again and again terminally ill people told me: “If I only had earlier…”
Interview: Mathias Morgenthaler on Saturday January 6th 2018. Moment.
As a child Anna Jelen asked straight forward during joyful birthday parties when her life will eventually end. Later she worked as a product manager for breast prosthesis and experienced how people facing certain death wanted to change their lives in the last minutes. So with 24 Years of age she decided to rearrange her life.
Ms. Jelen, did you have a dream job as a child?
ANNA JELEN: My biggest childhood wish was to become 30 years old. Even at a very young age I had have a special relation to time. While others suppress the thought of their mortality up until a very old age I for myself from very early on lived so much for the moment that I couldn’t imagine for a long period to reach a high age. When I was standing at the sea in Sweden, where I partially grew up, I was awestruck and lived that moment so intense that I forgot everything around me. Once, as a small child on a birthday party I asked straight forward right into the joyful crowd: “I wonder which date may be my final day?” The people around me looked at me in shock but for myself it was unbelievable interesting that all of us know our date of birth but no one knows the day of his death. For me this undefined limitation created a positive tension and early on I had the feeling that this limitation results into a duty to create life intensively.
And than you almost died very young indeed.
Yes, I was 17 years old and I lost orientation during a walk with my dog in the Swiss mountains. We stumbled through the snow storm for a very long time and once it began to dusk I laid down in the snow, freezing and without any power left. After a while I saw my life passing by in front of my inner eye and I thought to myself: “That’s like in the films but this is not a good sign – apparently my body surrendered.” I don’t remember much more. My dog saved my life in this moment. First he laid down on me and warmed me and later as he realized that it began to become critical he found the way back to the village and brought help. Therefore I was rescued in the very last moment on the next morning.
What were the pictures that you saw in those moment between life and death?
I was astound about the banality of those everyday pictures: for example the time when I was eating with my father in an Italian restaurant. It took a while until I realized that this moment may not have been spectacular but emotional meaningful: because on this evening I had my father for myself and I didn’t have to share him with my siblings. I was as proud as a peacock what made the moment so special for me. Afterwards I realized that time consists out of moments and at the end of our lives we remember the emotional ones. From this point on my life was centered around the question how we can create intense moments on a daily basis.
So consequently you decided to work as a time expert?
I needed a few more detours until I came to this point. After the general qualification for university entrance I worked for a company that produces prosthesis. As a product manager for breast prosthesis I was permanently travelling together with a small case containing twelve different breast forms to patients, which shortly before received their cancer diagnosis and therefore wanted to change their lives for the better. This affected me very much and I thought over and over again: humans are strange, they first start changing up when they know how little time they have left. Again and again permanently ill people told me: “If I only had earlier…”. I listened to that a dozen times until I was 24 years old and visited a woman in the Bernese Oberland who suffered from cancer and wanted to see me one last time and she told me: “After my retirement I wanted to do so much together with my husband and now I am awaiting death and I have to admit to myself, that I worked way too much and always wanted to make it right, especially for the others.”
What did this trigger inside you?
It was a surreal situation. The woman sat in a kind of glass cube in her deckchair surrounded by tropical plants and hundreds of butterflies. To me it seemed as if time stood still – again one of those moments that burned into my memory. I drove back to Lucerne stirred up, stopped at the Sempacher Lake and wrote into my diary: “And I will not wait for a diagnosis!” The next day I approached my boss and told him: “I don’t want to sell prosthesis any more, instead I want to offer seminars in which our clients learn how to use their time better.” My boss took a little time to think and eventually gave me green light to develop such a workshop for our mother company in Germany and for offering it company-wide. So I could explore the phenomenon of time from a philosophical, psychological and sociological perspective and immerse deeper into this compelling matter.
And later you became self-employed on this topic?
Yes, at the beginning I received a lot of freedom from my supervisors but after a few years the corset became too narrow for me. I decided to quit and to dare the step into independence – and for the next four years I pretty much made everything wrong that one could do wrong. I had no idea of accounting, I didn’t show any entrepreneurial thinking at all, I worked for one year in my office on the perfect flip chart-presentation, I read an uncountable amount of books and I lived from my savings while I hold endless brainstormings with myself because of the fear of calling someone and selling myself out. My trustee almost dropped dead on the spot when he constituted the accounting of the first year and even after that my situation only got better very slowly. I took many advises from marketing experts, produced flyers and sent mails without getting a great feedback. The situation changed, after my husband found me four years ago on an evening crying in front of a stack of invoices. He took me to dinner and asked: “How would you do it if you would not follow any advises and only listen to yourself?”