I wrote this post in early 2013 in response to a question my friend Helen had asked me. It was the culmination of many years of struggling through hard times and difficult circumstances, and the realisation that life is hard times and difficult circumstances. Also wonderful, miraculous, beautiful. It was the truest thing I had ever written, and the single piece of writing I was most proud of. I replicate it here as a kind of blog manifesto, the philosophical platform on which everything else rests.
Because truly being here is so much.
I first wrote this letter in longhand on refill paper, but after I got to page 5 and still hadn't hit the core of what I wanted to say, I gave up and decided to start again and go straight to the middle of the action.
The meaning of life? Is to live it.
Profound huh? Annoyingly vague and incontrovertible and one of those phrases we read and think we understand, and respond to by laughing off or getting pissed at or nodding wisely, then immediately returning to the more pressing problem of the chocolate stain left in the most visible spot possible in the middle of the living area by a person or persons unknown which hasn't yet come off with the best plethora of cleaning techniques and visitors are due tomorrow, speaking of which should we serve beef or chicken?
It's also the best, most hard-won, and practical statement I have to offer.
I've spent decades trying to find some ideal of who I am and how I might fit into the world, running through a complicated decision making algorithm that takes into account a mixture of the personality, opinions, and values from family, friends, acquaintances, and a surprising number of strangers, trying always to find the solution that would positively affect the most people and negatively impact the least. This felt like Doing the Right Thing. Turns out it was just monumentally stupid.
In trying to prove that I understood the rules of what it takes to be accepted and acceptable, all I was really doing was trying to prove my worth. As Nathaniel Branden puts it, that battle is lost the moment we concede the issue is debatable. We all live such subjective lives, such an individual cocktail of our place in time, our genetic inheritance, the environment we grew up in, the society we are now part of, that when we don't take the time to step back and find out what it's like for other people, and we almost never do, we can only judge their lives based on an understanding of our own. There will always be conflict and disapproval. Always.
It took an embarrassing amount of rejection and betrayal to understand this. Finally one last great big mother of all relationship lies floated to the surface and I was forced to see what had always been true. Sacrificing so much of my life on the altar of belonging had been my choice, and it had been disastrous. At first I was so damn angry. All that work and effort, all the intended love and kindness, years of my bloody life, for nothing. Then it changed into that Mary Oliver poem where she says how someone she loved once gave her a box of darkness, and it took her years to understand that this too was a gift. Because once I understood that I could not prove myself good enough, not ever, not even to myself or those who really love me, I also understood there was no point in trying.
God, the freedom. The relief.
It's not a bugger-everyone-I'll-do-whatever-the-hell-I-damn-like, sort of idea. Because that's psychopathy and I am against such things. Nor is it an I-just-don't-care-anymore type of depressive resignation. Not a big fan of that either. It's acceptance. Acceptance that my existence is proof enough of my worth, of the miracle that I am here at all, that any one of us is, that there is something rather than nothing and that as a species we have been graced with the ability to comprehend this something. It's just bloody glorious.
Which is not to say it's easy. Life can be so very hard, more on some days than others, more for some lives than others. But that's another essay to be written another time. It is to say that once we accept we belong by virtue of our being here, we stand on an equal footing to everyone else, whatever they say or believe, whatever the hell of our circumstances, whatever our mistakes. It's immovable, unshakeable. And when that happens, we can stop the hustle, as Brene Brown calls it, and start the living. Start noticing the parts of life that resonate with our peculiar brand of self, the joys, the sorrows, the grace, the mercies. The us. Any limitation or talent becomes information rather than judgement. When we start to understand who and what we most deeply value, and then live those values, we no longer have to look for meaning. They are meaning.
This makes it sound like I maybe float around on a happy cloud of shiny joy, which isn't even a little bit true. I still live more by fear than courage. Still can't look in the bathroom mirror when I brush my teeth, still say stupid things and do even stupider ones, loathe clothes shopping, constantly lose faith in the value of my ideas, get jealous of lives I assume are better, happier, than my own. My life at 40 is not what I imagined it would be at 20 and there are days I feel shame in that. But what is missing is the hopelessness, the despair, the nagging thought that if only I did more or tried harder, then all the disparate strands of my life would finally come together and I could live happy ever after.
The disparate strands may never come together. I'm not sure I even know what together means. And I'm also never going to reach ever after until the day I die. However close or far away that day may be, no-one is going to go through it for me. Just as no-one else is going to go through the experience of living my particular life. Whatever I make of it, whatever fortune deals me, it is uniquely, irreplaceably, unquestionably mine. I may as well be present for it.
Or more poetically, Rilke:
...because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.
Um, yep. That's all I've got.