Tag Archives: fate

How Fragile We Are: A Temporary Life in a Vulnerable Body

“Nature of life is fragile. Uncontrollable events happen all the time in life.” –Kilshore Bansal

Hello friend,

I had quite a health scare last week that left me physically weak and emotionally rattled. It never fails to amaze me by just how little we are hanging on.

My pain came on quite suddenly Monday afternoon. I had lay down on the sofa with a mug of cocoa to write in my journal. By the end of my entry, my stomach felt so overfull that I was disgusted with what a glutton I was. I figured that I would get up and move around, maybe use the bathroom, and things would settle down and be fine. They were not. The pain increased, but I was managing, and by the time I went to bed, I convinced myself that I would be fine in the morning and that my Tuesday would be as ordinary as ever.

How wrong I was.

I did all I could to get myself going in the morning and off to work. I felt horrible but told myself that I wouldn’t think about the doctor unless I still felt bad on Wednesday. After all, I didn’t have the fever and other symptoms of the nasty flu that has been such demolishing people all Winter, so I did not worry about infecting anyone else. It was just my own pain–constant, knee-buckling pain–in one localized area of my body. However, by late afternoon, I had begun to believe that I was not going to make it anywhere on Wednesday. I needed immediate help.

When the doctor at Urgent Care seemed confounded enough to send me home with some Maalox, I began to worry. I knew it was something serious, not just a bad tummy ache. As a last resort, she ordered a blood test, the results of which had her ordering me to go directly to the Emergency Room.

It was a quiet, solemn ten minutes in the car. “So this is how my story ends, eh?” That was the first thought in my head. I thought of all the people who have unwittingly embarked on their final day or final chapter of existence under the most ordinary circumstances. They got up and went to work that day as usual, and by the end of the day, they had been crushed by a car or had a stroke or received a diagnosis that would signal the their demise and final destiny. I thought I might be in that last category. I envisioned the ER doctors, after a series of scans, informing me that a malignant tumor had taken over the organs of my abdomen and that there was nothing more they could do but try to keep me comfortable until my certain death arrived, all of which I then had to explain to my wife when she arrived at the hospital. I wasn’t scared or panicked on that drive, but I definitely had a good cry. Maybe it was that awful vision, maybe it was the pain, and maybe it was that I was all alone. In any case, I wept for the final few minutes of the drive. Then, when I pulled into the parking lot, I got myself together to face my new reality, whatever that would be.

A couple of lonely and painful hours later–with a few more cries mixed in when the nurses would leave my room–after those envisioned scans were completed, I lay there contemplatively and awaited the results. I marveled at how, at any moment, some news would casually enter the room and either shatter my entire existence (as well as the lives of my wife and kids) or grant me a temporary reprieve. I pondered disbelievingly at how nonchalant that Fate can be, how lives get snuffed out and turned upside down in the most ordinary moments.  

Drunk driver. Aneurysm. School shooting. Diagnosis.

All day long. Every day of the year.  

Was the coming moment–the one that was so ordinary to everyone but me–about to be my moment? I wasn’t fretting, but I wasn’t forcing optimism, either. I think I was mostly in awe of the absolute powerlessness I felt. I was supremely aware of the blunt fact that Fate could do whatever she wanted with the fragile vessel that was my body, that it was completely out of my control and always would be. I served at her pleasure. There was the sense that the IVs and other tubes and machines I was hooked up to were there simply to administer helplessness. It was palpable.

I had never felt so insignificant in all my life.

So, what did I feel when the doctor came in with her sober face and her “I’m sorry to have to tell you this…” tone and told me that I had an appendicitis and would need to have surgery immediately? I felt relief. Relief that I got to go back home in a day or two to resume my normal life of pretending that I know how each day will go and that I have some control over the outcome. Relief that I got to go chase my kids around again and act as though we will certainly have all the time in the world together. Relief that my wife and I could resume our happy assumption that we will grow old together. Relief that I got to write another book and more of these letters to you. And ultimately, relief that I could feel like, “OF COURSE I will do all of that.” Of course.

I suppose it is an amazing privilege to live in a place and time that we can so easily delude ourselves that all will be well for the foreseeable future. I live in American suburbia in the 21st century. In spite of the nonsense in Washington and the regular mass shootings around the country, it is my privilege to drink clean water, have access to quality medical care, and feel physically safe where I live and reasonably certain of what comes next.

But let’s be honest: it’s still an illusion of safety and certainty. Those things aren’t real. We are at the whims of Fate. That aneurysm or drunk driver can hit at any moment.

That was the sobering reality that hit me on the way to the Emergency Room and remained on my shoulder as I waited for the doctor to deliver the news. I knew that she could just as easily speak the words “stomach cancer” as “appendicitis” when she walked through the door, and that Fate’s flip-of-the-coin might bring the other answer to the person waiting in the next room. We were both powerless to change her verdict.

Even after I received the “good news” and felt that big exhalation of relief, that peek behind the curtain of Reality left me rattled emotionally. For the next few days, I was a raw nerve.

When my kids came to see me the next day in the hospital, it was all I could do to keep from bursting out crying. They were the thing I stood to lose on that coin flip, after all, and I had shuddered even more at the thought of them losing me at their age. If they weren’t already wearing Fear on their faces at seeing me hooked up to all those tubes, I know I would have let out an involuntary sob. As it was, I fought it back and just told them I loved them and missed them terribly in the day that had passed. I was the same way when my Mom called. I could hardly breathe–much less speak–in my effort to keep the floodgates closed.

The thing that finally burst the dam was a movie. On the morning I was released from the hospital, I went home to nap in my bed. When I woke, I started a movie that I had long wanted to watch on Netflix, “Fruitvale Station.” It is based on a true story of a young man’s last day on Earth, ending in his murder. On a different day, I might have finished watching and been angry at the injustice of the murder and sad about the loss to the young man’s mother, child, and girlfriend, but I think I would have moved on without much drama. Not this day. No, I lay in bed and sobbed and sobbed at the random and senseless cruelty of the world and how we walk daily along that razor’s edge between a happy normalcy and a completely shattered existence. Shortly after I stopped crying, my wife came home, took one look at me, and asked what had happened. I couldn’t even get the words out; I just sobbed and sputtered some more.

That peek behind the curtain had broken me. It was Life and the unfairness and uncertainty of it. And it was the sheer recklessness of Fate. How it could take that young man with the beautiful daughter and his newfound resolution to be better. How it could casually erase the lives of children in the middle of a normal school day. How it could nonchalantly shake the Earth and crumble the homes in one town but not another, then turn around and scatter terminal diagnoses all over the planet. And it was the absolute clarity that, despite the fact that I got off easy this time, it could just as easily have gone the other way.

All of that reality caught up to me in that moment, and I let it all out through my eyes.

In the days that have followed, my body has grown stronger, and with it I have rebuilt my illusion. I no longer spend the day thinking about how completely fragile each of our existences is. I am getting past that jarring sensation I felt upon realizing how temporary and random are our lives and deaths. I am planning for the future again, even as I am reminding myself to be present and enjoy each moment I have here with these beautiful people that I call mine. I am telling myself that waking up early for the gym each morning will let me live a longer, happier, and healthier life. I am trying to be “normal” again.

I have to admit though, that there is a thin veil over my normal now. I got spooked last week on my way to the hospital. Spooked by Reality. You know that traumatized feeling you get when someone just about rams into you with their car as you are driving–that freaked out, breathless, sobering kind of spook? It was like that, but instead of dissipating after a few minutes, it stayed. So I am wondering: will this gun-shy feeling go away with time, or will every moment of joy and freedom and planning and dreaming be tinged with that peek behind the curtain, that look into Fate’s eyes, the same way that Death has a way of leaving that tinge on every moment thereafter? I will have to wait and see, I suppose.

Still, I can’t help but think that it will become harder and harder to shake the truth that our existence–my existence–is a temporary and uncertain one in a body that is vulnerable to the whims of Fate and random chance. I’m not sure that will ever quite sit well with me.

How about you? How do you make peace with the vulnerability of your body and the random and uncertain nature of Life in general? Open up your journal and go deep as you pull back the curtain on this topic that we typically keep ourselves in denial about. How often, if ever, do you allow yourself to fully absorb how vulnerable your body is to any number of potential destructions? Does it take a personal crisis, such as a car crash or medical emergency? Do you feel it when there is an “act of God” that makes the news, such as an earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami that kills lots of people? How about things nearby, such as when someone in your community is stricken with cancer or killed by a drunk driver? Does it hit you at all when you hear of tragedies further away from home, such as a famine in Africa or a genocide in Syria? Do you brush those things quickly past your awareness, or do you allow them in? How does each of these types of peril affect you? What makes one type more staggering than the other? Does it have to happen directly to you to affect you deeply, or is your empathy enough to be shaken by these occurrences in others? When you feel it, how quickly are you able to get back to your illusion of safety and security? Is that a healthy and necessary denial? Is it also healthy to have these periodic reminders (read: scares) to help you to see that life is to be cherished and not wasted? Overall, how free are you of the shadow of this near-death existence that you live every day? How has that changed as you have aged? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do you navigate life in your fragile and temporary body?  

Spread sunlight,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it on your social media channels. Let us grow and thrive in community!

Enjoy Life or Improve It: What should we do with ourselves?

DSC_0819“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” –E.B. White

Hello friend,

Last month, I received a note from a dear uncle that scraped an open sore in my psyche. His words: “I worry about you—not that there’s anything wrong, but that I know you’re a person who is continually trying to make sense of the world, how you fit into it, and seeking to improve it. By my reckoning, those are all admirable traits. I mostly hope that you will be happy and fully enjoying each day of your life.” It was part of a very sweet and complimentary letter, and I very much appreciated his kindness. He means a great deal to me, and I believe he understands me better than most.

This is why the subtext of those words has lingered and festered in my mind over the ensuing weeks. The subtle message: If you spend your life trying to improve the world, you miss out on all the fun. Just enjoy the ride.

Don’t think that the concept of “Just Enjoy Life” is not appealing to me. It is. We should seek to be happy, to enjoy both the simple pleasures of this life and also the more elaborate ones. Life is to be enjoyed. Spending your precious time on things much bigger than you—and perhaps beyond your sphere of influence—can be reasonably considered a waste. I get it.

But I don’t really get it. Not in my soul, in my spirit, in my daemon, in my calling, in my Fate, or whatever you want to call this thing deep inside me that seems to be driving the bus. It has its own set of demands, and they seem to trump anything that my logical mind sees as reasonable.

Once in a while, I talk myself into “killing time” with something mindless or gratuitous. Maybe it is watching television or surfing the Internet, something purely for leisure. I might go for a bit without any repercussions, but before long, the boss notices that something is amiss. I start to remember all of the other, “more important” things I could be doing to advance my dreams and make my world better, and then I get anxious, antsy. It is like cabin fever for my brain. I am dying for an outlet of “productivity.” And even though I know leisure is part of a healthy lifestyle, it has to be the right kind of leisure for me. It has to also fulfill a need, like physical health (from going to the gym) or self-awareness (from writing in my journal) or peace (from a walk in the woods or a ride in the kayak). When I stop and smell the roses, it has a purpose.

My inner control panel has very sophisticated instruments to detect activities (and people) that don’t serve my greater good, and it is quick to alert me of things that waste my time. I just don’t tolerate these things well at all. They make my skin crawl, truly.

So, I do my thing. I stick to my priorities. I deal with people who are meaningful to me and spend my free time only on things that speak to my deepest passions. And I trust the control panel to alert me to anyone or anything that will distract me from my highest priorities. I am extremely protective of my time and energy.

I admit that I have high aspirations, both for myself and for the world. High aspirations require a higher level of dedication, a deeper commitment. I understand that one of the trade-offs of that commitment is less time fooling around and “taking it easy.”

It is tiring, though. I admit that, too. Every day the tasks of aspiration bark their orders at me and don’t much allow me to let up. Moments are not to be wasted. I sometimes get a little burnt out.

That is when I have one of those aforementioned evenings of forced leisure. I try to restore the proper balance. But, as I said, I never last long in leisure mode. I hear the ticking of the clock like firecrackers going off in my brain. I feel the time wasting. I start to go stir crazy. My projects call out to me. I ache to get back to them. So, the cycle continues.

I suppose I just have to surrender to my internal wiring. I am almost certainly never going to be the guy who doesn’t have at least one thing he is aching to learn about or improve upon in any given moment. In spite of everything that is happening in our world today, I fully hope and expect to live a lot longer, and thus I expect to accomplish a lot before I leave this place. So, on the surface at least, I may never come across as the “just relax and enjoy” guy.

But that is not to say I don’t enjoy my life. I do. I love it, actually. I find myself often counting my blessings regarding my regular need to juggle so many high-priority tasks that I truly love. I love spending tons of time with my kids. I love writing in my journal. I love writing these letters to you. I love working on The Journal Project. The only thing I don’t love is the pressure of trying to squeeze all of these wonderful things into every day. It is a huge challenge, and even more so when I try to mix in some other, more “pure leisure” activities into the schedule. So, even though I am doing all of these things under the stress of deadlines and sleep deprivation, I am thoroughly happy and grateful that I get to be the guy who juggles them.

Sometimes I compare my kind of grinding happiness to the way a pro athlete goes through the wringer in a very tight and important competition. It is high drama. You see him tortured by his own errors or the luck of his opponent, totally dejected after the loss of a critical point and cursing himself in the process. It is like a Shakespearean tragedy. And yet, even after the worst of dramatic losses, when it hurts like his dog has been shot, if you asked him if he still likes to play and still wants to practice, he would look at you like you were insane. “Of course! I love it! Let’s go play it again right now!”

That’s how I see myself most days. Yes, trying to improve myself and the world every day is taxing and often frustrating. Sure, I have to pass on more leisurely activities that I know would be lots of fun. But do I regret the bargain I have made? Heck no! I get a great rush when I make a personal breakthrough or learn that I have made a positive impact on someone’s life. It feels like I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.   And hey, I gotta be me!

How about you? How do you balance striving and leisure in your life? Open up your journal and give yourself an honest assessment. How driven are you? What is the thing that keeps you striving to be better? What is your level of obsession with that task? Is the growth you seek to gain from it purely personal, or does it also have an element of a greater good, of service to others? Do you allow yourself to take a vacation from it sometimes, to let yourself totally off the hook? Are you like me and get a little antsy when you are not doing something productive? Do you set aside time for fun and leisure? What do you do to “Just Enjoy Life”? Is it your primary goal? Is it more about an attitude, or is it about finding lots of activities that are enjoyable? Is it okay to be entirely about enjoyment, with no thought to self-improvement or the greater good? Isn’t being happy a type of gift to the world, too? Is there a proper mix for how to spread one’s time–such as 90% enjoyment, 10% service/improvement—or is the answer as individual as we are? Do you think someone like me, who is a little bit obsessed with the service/improvement part, is doing it wrong and likely to end up unhappy (and perhaps not even impactful anyway)? Does the world need a few people bent that way, anyway, so that the majority can be more pleasure-focused? Where do you fit? Leave me a reply and let me know: What drives you? 

Do your thing,

William

P.S. If this helped you to see yourself, share it. Encourage everyone with the light that you radiate!

Not Ready To Let Go

DSC_0232“Death, the one appointment we all must keep, and for which no time is set.” –Charlie Chan 

Yesterday I got to hang out with my Mom on her 69th birthday. Just like every year, I felt blessed to be with her on her special day, and even more grateful that she is alive and kicking. Just a week ago, after all, she had paid me a surprise visit, as she had to drive her brother to town for an emergency open-heart surgery. I was reminded that, even though 69 is not exactly ancient, something—like an emergency heart surgery—could happen at any time. Obviously, none of us is ever promised another breath—we could all go at any moment—but, just as obviously, the odds go up with each passing year.

My father had a major heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery nineteen years ago, on the night of my Mom’s 50th birthday. Even though I wouldn’t have categorized our relationship as “close,” this incident shook me to my core. I remember sitting alone in the hallway outside of the Intensive Care Unit, sobbing like a baby. I had never lost a family member or close friend, and I was clearly not prepared to do so. Not much has changed on that front in the ensuing nineteen years. My grandparents and two cousins have died, yes, but those happened at times that were expected given their circumstances, and I had thus built up my emotional mattress on which to land comfortably enough. But, I am grateful to report that no one in my immediate family or closest friend group has died. I have to cross my fingers and knock on wood as I type this, because I am well aware that I have been extremely lucky on this front and that my number is bound to come up soon.

My parents are now 72 and 69, and, in terms of generations at least, they are next in line to go. That was the one realization that hit me the hardest when my Mom’s father—and my last remaining grandparent—died two years ago: how awful it would feel to not have (living) parents anymore. That would seemingly be soon mixed with the other potentially troubling pill to swallow: that you are the next in line to go. While most of us can go through most of our lives in complete denial of death’s inevitability, I am guessing that is not an easy trick to pull off when there is no generation older than you at the family reunion.

With the birth of my children, I definitely became more invested in extending my stay on the planet (see my “Clinging to Life on Earth” from May 30, 2014). But in general, I have a much easier time with the idea of my own death than that of someone near and dear to me. I don’t know exactly what it is. I don’t think it is about leaving things unsaid, as I have done fairly well in letting people know how I feel about them. I had the chance this weekend to visit my great-uncle–closing in on 90–and I told him that he is the most kind-hearted man I had ever known. I had long wanted him to know that, so it felt good to get off my chest. If I don’t see him again, I am glad I left it that way. I think I am fairly solid in that department with most of my loved ones. I am also quite clear that it is not about uncertainty or fear regarding what comes after life on Earth; I have no problems with that. I don’t dread what comes next, for me or anyone else. So what is it? Why am I so unwilling to let people die?

I think that it must be rooted in the potential richness of future experiences. I am so deeply and unapologetically about living life to its fullest and “not, when I came to die, discover that I have not lived,” as Thoreau said. With that, I think I have an unrealistic need for the winds of Fate to blow just the right way for me, for everything to come up aces. My vision of The Best Life for William has all of my loved ones in it and thriving for a very long time, and my children getting to know their grandparents the way I knew mine. As a constant chronicler of my world—both through my journals and photographs—I adore looking back on the pages and pictures to find images of a life blessed with a happy, healthy family and good friends. It pains me greatly to even imagine these days and years passing without a key ingredient in this idyllic scene that is my life. It would just seem so much LESS to visit my Mom on her birthday and have Dad not be there, or to walk my kids through this world without my wife’s hand holding up the other end of our chain. LESS. Less rich. Less joyous. Less unstoppably beautiful as I believe Life to be. I don’t want Less. I reject it for my world.

I can see as I write this that I am in for a mighty fall some day. Neither Fate nor I have equipped me very well to deal with a loss like this, and I seem destined to crumble like a house of cards. Probably I should begin to prepare myself mentally and emotionally, but I don’t want to diminish any of the richness of these wonderful moments in the process. My parents have aged pretty well. I don’t expect something bad to happen to them any day now—I save that for the decade of their 80s—but I suppose I have begun to become a bit leery of these years. As my 64-year-old uncle’s surprise heart surgery reminded me last week, something could happen at any time. My Dad had a major heart attack nineteen years ago, so I suppose I have been on borrowed time with him for a while now. Am I just a fool in denial for not expecting the other shoe to fall at any moment? Probably so, but it is not in me to live expecting the worst. I will cling to my unbridled, irrational optimism of long and prosperous years to come, and I will savor every happy, healthy moment of our togetherness. It feels better to me this way.

How about you? How prepared are you for the death of a loved one? Open up your journal, and write yourself to clarity. Have you had a member of your inner circle die? How have you handled death up to this point? Have your coping skills changed as you have aged and moved closer to the front of the line? How does your view of “the afterlife” affect this process for you? After a loved one has passed, does it make the occasion more sad when the rest of your gang gathers together, or do you feel more of an obligation to each other to make each moment together as rich and joyous as possible? Which person’s death in your inner circle are you best equipped to handle, and why? Which one’s passing would devastate you the most? How well do the people you love know how you feel about them? Do you still have things you need to say so that you can live without regret if they died tomorrow? Maybe today is a good day to share. Are you like me, living mostly in denial of the inevitable loss of your loved ones? Is that okay? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you ready to let go?

Live out loud today,

William

Are You Destined For Greatness?

DSC_0616“You know,” he said after a while, “it’s kids’ stuff, but I always thought my obituary would be in all the newspapers, that I’d have a story worth telling. I always had this secret suspicion that I was special.” –Augustus Waters, a dying teen in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars 

Hello friend,

I just this moment finished reading The Fault In Our Stars, the brilliant and heartbreaking novel by John Green. It is filled with beautiful, deeply insightful passages about our existence and our place in the universe. But, for some reason, the passage that I instantly went hunting back for upon finishing was the one I quoted above, with Augustus admitting to Hazel his “secret suspicion” that he was special, that he believed he was destined for greatness. Ever since I read that chapter in the book yesterday, I have not been able to get the idea out of my mind. The reason is as simple as it is awkward to admit to: I have the same secret suspicion about myself.

I do. I always have. Always. And, not surprisingly, I have not mentioned this to anyone in my lifetime. It seems too boastful, too self-aggrandizing, too potentially degrading to everyone else around me. But is it, really? I mean, it is really just admitting to a gut feeling I have always had—an intuition—not something I go around telling myself based on rational observation. I haven’t decided that I am better than anyone else, but rather I have “a secret suspicion,” as Augustus says, that something grand and noteworthy will become of my life, that I will be famous for something positive.   To put it simply, I feel destined for greatness.

When you carry something like that around with you your whole life—in complete silence about it, especially—it seems like you are the only one feeling it. While there is a certain power to it—you think at any moment you are going to stumble upon your big break and life will be forever changed—there is a loneliness, too. The famous people know each other—they rub elbows at the Oscar parties or the NATO Peace Summit or Nobel Prize ceremony—but where do those still awaiting their greatness meet? That is why it struck me so deeply when I read that line from Augustus. “Finally, a kindred spirit!” I thought. But then, “Wait a minute, he is about to die, so his suspicion was wrong. That means mine could be wrong, too. AND he is admitting it because he is dying, so maybe lots of people feel the same way and just don’t ever say it. Maybe everybody feels that way. Could it be?

This is difficult to wrap my mind around, having gone through life thinking I was the only one with this gut feeling that it was my fate to become a person of great influence (and that I was not supposed to advertise that ahead of time). But now enters this idea that most or all of us have this same intuition, this same tug from the Universe. That would be quite a trick played on us by the Divine (or the Devil?), a trick of psychological delusion to keep the masses pacified: each of us secretly thinking we alone are destined to stand out from the rest of the pack, nobody saying anything to anyone else for fear of seeming boastful or arrogant. It is the ultimate deception.

It is a bit deflating to me, I must admit, after a life of believing fame and influence were right around the corner. But, honestly, I have been lately wondering, “If this is really going to happen, Universe, then WHEN????” I am not getting any younger. Perhaps in the end I will pass on in quiet obscurity like almost everyone else, never making an impact beyond my beautiful-but-tiny sphere, my “secret suspicions” of the Great Fate finally revealing themselves to be mere delusions of grandeur. Of course, given the extreme expectations I have lived with all my life due to these intuitions, it would seem quite a disappointing way to go down. I will probably have a lot to make peace with.

So, are these gut feelings–that I am special and destined to do great things—a blessing or a curse? I suppose the answer to that depends somewhat on the course my journey takes from here. If it turns out that they are right—if I win a Nobel Prize or become President or cure cancer—then they will have served to buoy me in tough times and keep me on my course, always believing in the best possible outcome. In that case, yeah! If, however, I go quietly into the deep, dark night, then what? Then I would probably still argue that they were a blessing—buoying and keeping the course and the like—right up until the end, when the realization of eternal obscurity and unimportance hits home. Of course, then the mighty have a long way to fall and much to make peace with. Still, I would argue that that is a fair trade for a life lived with confidence and great expectations. I think I will press on upon my course toward greatness. The end will come eventually, with or without my certainty about it.

How about you? Do you have a secret suspicion that you are special, that you are destined for greatness? Get out your journal, and write about your expectations. How do you think your life will go? Will you be famous? Will you continue on the same trajectory that you are on now, or are you expecting a rollercoaster? How will you feel at the end of your days? How will you be remembered? Answer it both from your ego’s point-of-view and also straight from your gut. More than any post I have written to you so far, I would deeply appreciate a response from this one. I am truly baffled by this thought at the moment about how many of us have this secret suspicion that we are special, and I need some answers. I want to know: Are you destined for greatness?

Trust your heart,

William