When Erwin McManus was diagnosed with cancer, his perspective on the world changed dramatically.
Though the Mosaic pastor, filmmaker, designer, speaker and author had achieved a lot in his life, the diagnosis made him look at life differently and ask, what would it really look like to live every moment like it’s your last?
We recently spoke with McManus about the book and how every Christian can benefit from shifting their perspective on life.
For people who haven’t gotten a chance to read the book yet, tell us a little bit about why you wanted to write The Last Arrow.
I’ve seen people with incredible talent, potential and promise sort of crash and burn, and some of them just disappear quietly into the night. And I just started really thinking about what are the characteristics of people who never settle, of people who, somehow, have the internal resilience to overcome a lot of failure, a lot of disappointment, a lot of difficulties?
And I wanted to be able to write a book that you could read as if you’re at the end of your life, before you’re at the end of your life, so that you can live your life without regret.
How did the experience of being diagnosed with cancer change your life and perspective, especially as it pertains to some of the messages that you’d been researching for this book?
What I think is really important for me about the book is, I wrote it as if I were dying, and I finished the manuscript, and then they told me I had cancer and that it expanded further than they’d hoped and that it was more advanced than we would want, and I didn’t know if it was going to be my last Christmas.
So I had to face a reality that this is going to be my last Christmas and the last time with my wife and kids and that I needed to finish this book. And the title, The Last Arrow, may have been a pretty powerful foreshadowing that it was my last book. And when I went back and started editing the book, what really struck me was, I didn’t feel the need to change anything in the book. Having this overwhelming realization that I could be dead didn’t change the perspective of the book.
There are people who are comfortable getting into a rhythm and kind of playing it safe. Then there are those people who are comfortable taking risks and never really settling. What are some things you observed about the latter groups of people?
I think the people who observe from the outside do not live their life for themselves. They live their lives for others. Because if you live your life for yourself, you can create a pretty comfortable experience and you don’t really have to risk a great deal. To live a level of comfort and security is really a minimal requirement on your life. When you begin to live your life for others, and ask the question, “What’s the most good that I can do in the world?” The moment you start to live your life for others, it moves you into risk mode and moves you out of safety and security mode.
I feel like some of the barriers I’ve seen for people that can’t shift their attitude are fear and regret. How can someone move on past these past transgressions and regret so they can start a new chapter living a different kind of life?
I write a lot about fear and regret in the book, because it’s paralyzing. And you have to have a particular posture with your past. You have to realize that your past will be your future unless you have the courage to create a different one. And people who accomplish a lot in life, people who live without regret, people who never settle, it’s not because they didn’t fail or because they don’t have a backstory of disappointment … they just don’t let it define them.
And I think that’s the huge thing—you can’t fix what happened before in your life, but it doesn’t have to fix you into a pattern for life. I mean, I have failed so much in my life, I’ve messed up so many times. I know I’ve been disappointed and have probably disappointed so many people. But the whole point of it is that if you don’t risk, you don’t really have a lot of failures in your resume. If you’re gonna risk a lot, you’re gonna fail a lot.
And that’s why it can’t be about your ego, because if it’s about your ego, you’re going to protect your story by not taking huge risks. But if it’s not about your ego, then who cares if you fail? Who cares if other people think you blew it or you messed up? You understand that what you’re living for is more important than your reputation. And I always tell people, look, what you fear establishes the boundaries of your freedom.
So if you’re afraid of heights you stay low, if you’re afraid of people, you stay alone. If you’re afraid of the outdoors, you stay inside. And that’s one of the reasons that you need to lean into your fears. Because your fears really become the material in which your life is limited. And most of these things that we’re afraid of, they never come to pass. We tend to be more afraid of shadows and possibilities.
Fear is a pessimistic act of faith about the future. Fear and worry say the worst possible scenario is gonna happen. So why allow faith to operate your life from the dark side in a sense? So I tell people, look, you don’t know how it’s gonna play out, you don’t know what the future holds, you don’t know if you’re gonna succeed or fail. So what becomes important is giving yourself to something that matters whether you succeed or fail. And worry is really trying to control things that are outside our control, which actually sucks the energy out of your soul. So stop worrying about the things that are out of your control, and start focusing on the things that you actually do have control over.
Just as sort of a cultural observation, I feel like fear and worry and anxiety are really prevalent among a lot of millennials, probably for a variety of factors. What would you say to a millennial who is on the cusp of settling into a rhythm that could define them for adulthood or taking a risk that could change their lives?
My son is 29 and my daughter is 25, so it’s the same thing I would tell them. Part of the reason that anxiety, fear and worry have an overwhelming effect on a person in their 20s—I know this sounds weird— is because you haven’t failed enough.
So what I would say is to see your 20s, even your early 30s, as your opportunity to fail a lot, often and creatively. And don’t even see it as a time where you have to prove you’re an expert. A lot of the problem is that we live in a culture where we measure ourselves against people who are prodigious. So they’re great at something when they’re 15 or 16, and we actually believe that if we haven’t found fame by the time we’re 24, we’ve missed our window. And we need to stop measuring our lives against people who are adorations to the story.
I wrote my first book when I was 40, I started a fashion company when I was 50. I don’t think you need to put yourself in this category of “I have to prove I’m great at something by the time I’m 28.” Just do a lot of things that you’re bad at now. Get it out of the way, so by the time you hit your stride at 32, 34, you know, hey, I’m not good at all that other stuff but I’ve found a couple of things that I’m pretty good at. And if I work really hard, I could actually be great at it.