The holidays just finished and now we’re into January. It’s the doldrum month that I’d skip every year if I could. I’m not interested in January, unless it occurs in a year where I get to witness the inauguration of a black President, or a woman President, or any person of color President, or any President really who would govern with genuine compassion. But I digress.
At present, I’m also not a big fan of the holidays. A couple of years ago, right around Christmas eve, my childhood friend took his life. We grew up in the same church. As kids we had a shared shyness and so we’d hide in the same basement room, hoping that we could avoid people until the sermon was over and we could go home. Growing up, we bonded over video games and anime. He was a wonderfully wacky and generous person. I loved him and it hurt badly that he left.
His was not the first death of the year. Earlier that summer, my cousin also committed suicide. It was a rough year. I was working a job that was long on hours but short on meaning and I was in a relationship I shouldn’t have been in. After his death I had a breakdown of spirit. I felt despair for the first time in my life. I wasn’t totally paralyzed — I still went to work and hung out with friends and played with my dog — but everything seemed to be tinged with meaninglessness.
Today, I think about him. I think about my cousin.
After many months, I eventually escaped that terrible state, thanks to the gift of books and the love of a select set of family and friends. (I did make many mistakes in the process, though). During this time, I learned things. About myself, about life in general.
I learned that it takes focus and effort to love correctly. Loving is one of the most worthwhile things any of us will ever do, right up there with saving the planet and eliminating poverty and ensuring equal access to education and health care for all. Maybe loving is THE most important thing. Part of the reason why is because, like the other things I mentioned, loving is hard. You first have to know what it means to love, and discover all the qualities and actions that encompass it. Then you have to go about actually doing the loving. Emphasis on the ing part of loving. The verb part.
Loving every day is not easy.
What helps is that we can create frameworks for how we love by pulling from external sources. We can draw from those who love us. We can read about the many great love stories that have been lived and written about. If nothing else, we can talk to those who serve the least fortunate among us. Charity and love are synonyms after all.
Death is another thing I learned about. When people you love die, it can be torturous, life changing, and rage inducing. It can sap all joy out of the holidays, and all the holidays after that. It can destroy.
But in all its terror and sadness, death is what makes living so meaningful, complicated, and beautiful. I don’t mean to conflate death with any of those things, but understanding and yielding to this truth will lead to a more fruitful life.
Look, everyone you know and everyone you love will eventually die. So will you. Though unpleasant and potentially ruinous, thinking about this can be a way to quickly infuse some gratitude and motivation into your life. Pretend you only have 3 months left to live. What would you do? What would you do if your parents or family or dearest friends only had 3 months to live? How much harder would you love them?
I also learned about purpose, which really was a long time coming. My formal education equipped me well enough to enter a career, but it did poorly to help me answer why that career was one I wanted to have in the first place. And so I started thinking about it: what I wanted to do, and why I wanted to do it.
I figured out that I was going about it in reverse. Instead of selecting a career or job, then trying to justify my selection, I learned that it’s better to first establish the criteria, then make the vocation selection. By criteria I mean values, or the the things I find important in life. These are the things that define what I ought to be doing.
That’s how I go about choosing what work I do now: I aspire to live by a set of values, and I try to do work that aligns with those values.
It took a combination of loved ones dying, a meaningless job, and repeated relationship failures for me to learn these things. This isn’t to say that I’m a finished product. I struggle and fail as I learn and relearn these lessons.
In many ways, I’m still a mess. Some days I feel lost and full of doubt. I experience a less potent state of that period after my friend’s death. I’m sad and numb and wondering what the point of it all is. On these days, I have to remind myself that meaning is a perpetual pursuit. We search for it, find it, lose it, then rediscover it: A glorious and disconcerting circle. This happens because we are flawed, forgetful creatures, who often mistake the feeling of a thing’s absence as evidence for its absence.
We discover and rediscover meaning, every day.
Today was one of those days, but writing this has helped reorient me. I am reminded of my friend and my cousin, and how their lives influence me; echoes I hear even after death. I am reminded that loving is hard sometimes, but always worth the while. I am reminded of the deep foundational things within me that are my resolve: compassion, kindness, presence, and charity. I am reminded of how little time I have to live and how I should be thankful for it all: for the suffering and joy and pain and wonder.
If any of you ever experience days like this, I encourage you to reach out. Shoot me an email or text. Call me.
I will listen to you and do my best to encourage you. I will remind you that a sense of purpose is good, but secondary to acts of purpose, so go out there and live it. And if you don’t know exactly what that means, I will tell you to just go help people. Do some good and be kind.
I will remind you that right now, you are valued, you are worthwhile, you are loved. For today and every day; for this moment and every moment after.