In elementary school, I remember learning about the Make-A-Wish Foundation, in awe while watching footage of children swimming with dolphins and others rafting in the Grand Canyon. (Although those activities are not limited to people terminally ill, in my seven-year-old mind, they were as exotic as living in the Taj Mahal or hot air ballooning over Antarctica.) At the same time, I felt confused—that somehow I should disregard my own fanciful dreams because I didn’t have a terminal disease. Thus at a young age, I noticed the dissonance that sometimes people should do amazing things, follow their dreams, but somehow those opportunities are not always normal. So I was pretty normal, earned straight A’s and kept myself out of trouble.
I expected that my life would follow a common trajectory, though I never envisioned any specifics. Sometimes I answered honestly when people asked me what I wanted to be in the future: “happy.” Gauging by the puzzled reactions, my answer apparently illustrated my lack of direction or of ambition, or of both.
Meanwhile, I observed that most people have a sense of entitlement that they will live a long time. Economics seemed to influence life’s major decisions. Go to a good college, find a job that pays well, earn increasingly higher salaries. As needed, change jobs for the sake of more money. Life is long; financial maximization is crucial; you can do other things later. Exceptions seemed reserved only for those with a terminal diagnosis. Growing older, I have witnessed the growing popularity of yoga, meditation, and Eastern thought. Yet despite the ubiquity of books, teachers, and classes emphasizing living in the present, far more people pay lip service to the idea than actually living accordingly. Most continue to fixate on the past or fret about the future.
Though in adulthood I have lived overseas on multiple occasions and have practiced yoga for several years, the most profound shift in my perspective occurred before I could vote. While driving late at night, a few months after I turned sixteen, my eyes began to hurt from a multitude of flashing police lights. I passed by a mangled truck amidst the police cruisers. When I reached my destination, I remarked to someone that I had passed a car was damaged beyond recognition. The following morning, I learned that the driver was a friend, that most likely he was still in the vehicle when I saw it. At his funeral, his father, whom I had never met, unexpectedly embraced me as he walked to the hearse for the procession to the cemetery. His tenderness in the face of my grief overwhelmed me as much the accident.
Less than eighteen months later, I was weeks away from college acceptance letters in the mail, within a couple months of graduation. While riding home with a friend, we passed a car in a yard, seemingly having jumped the curb and the passenger side stopped by a tree in the yard. We didn’t recognize the person walking outside the vehicle, and as we debated the danger of stopping at a pay phone in the middle of the night, we heard several sirens. So we went home. The next morning, I learned that another friend was in the passenger seat. Like the friend in the previous accident, he also died on impact, body still in the car when I passed the scene.
Until those car accidents, I, like many kids, had never seriously contemplated my own mortality. The deaths of my friends fundamentally changed my how I live. Though I recognize that I was powerless to change what happened, the residual guilt affected me profoundly. For the first time I questioned the idea that “things happen for a reason,” an idea that comforts many—that God or some divinity allowed events to happen in a certain way for a specific reason. This logic seemed hollow to me, a strange succor for something unjustifiable, such as lives ended too soon. I couldn’t (and still don’t) accept that some divine being decided I was more worthy of living than my classmates who were no longer alive.∞ So I decided to abandon the attempt at finding comfort from divine order or preordained destiny. For the first time, I questioned the validity and the value of my own existence. Why have I lived while others died? What do I do, what do I create, in the life that I have?
One of the earliest insights was that I may not have much time for answering those questions. In the wake of those accidents, I understood that no such guarantee exists for anyone, regardless of health. Just because I don’t have cancer doesn’t mean that I’ll be alive next week. Just because other people have cancer doesn’t mean they’ll die of it. After the deaths of my classmates, I gained the same freedom as someone with a terminal illness: the permission (which I granted to myself) to disengage from normal expectations and do what is most vital, must compelling in life.
The consequent awareness that first resulted from those accidents continues both to evolve and to guide my choices today. The website of Kris Carr, cancer survivor, asks “Why, when we are challenged to survive, do we give ourselves permission to truly live?” Some people interpret “truly” living as condonement of anarchy or hedonism—after all, a potentially short lifespan means less time for consequences. No need to remain invested, even in life, if the end could be imminent. I interpret differently. I can control my own choices, but also accept life’s unpredictability. Since attending those funerals in high school, I no longer live under the illusion that my life will necessarily be long. I hope so, but I also recognize the lack of assurance that it will be. Accepting the reality of impermanence has not led to hedonistic behavior, but the contrary—I cherish each day I live, even when life seems mundane. I live more fully now than I ever did as a child. I relish the present and still dream for the future.
My friend Michael has been an excellent teacher of following one’s own intentions, rather than a flow chart of expectations. Now nearly sixty years old, he was HIV-positive in 1982, the same year the CDC named AIDS as its own illness. When HIV and AIDS were a quick death warrant, he had received the perfect “Get Out of Normal Life Free” card; he had the perfect excuse not to think about the future. Instead, he earned a PhD in literature. Decades later, he remains incredibly healthy and active: hiking on the weekends, vigorous yoga several times a week. Moreover, he’s working towards attending graduate school for physical therapy, in part inspired by his own experiences with knee and shoulder surgery. He truly embodies the axiom of “Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever.”
Ten years after high school, while riding my bike, I was struck by a car. The accident was not serious enough that I had visions of my past, the way that people often describe near-death experiences. Rather, in that split-second of impact, I had visions of my future: a lengthy hospital stay, followed by hobbling around with crutches to accommodate my mangled legs, never walking or dancing again. Fortunately, I healed completely. But those visions were a powerful reinforcement to live in the present.
I conduct myself both to make my life worth living and for myself to be worthy of my own lifetime—literally my life’s time. I don’t want a lengthy bucket list if I live to an old age. So I enjoy the details, pay equal attention to both breakfast and concerts. I strive to live my own present, instead of allowing an expected life trajectory to determine my choices. I live on a small scale that I can appreciate, rather than overwhelming myself with tangible things. I often feel overwhelmed anyway—occasionally from my busy schedule, but more often from the constant profoundness of my life. People who keep me grounded, challenged, laughing. Nature that blesses me in every moment. The creativity that people manifest. The love that people readily share.
“A jaded traveler with an invisible passport,
I am at home with this heaven of the unforeseen,
waiting for the next whoosh of sudden departure
when, with no advance warning, no tiny augery,
the unpredictable plummets into our lives
from somewhere that looks like sky.”
~ Billy Collins, from “The Blue”
∞ Though I believe in karma—things happen for a reason—I understand the reason not as rationalization or justification, but rather as a result of something prior (more akin to cause and effect).
SK © 2011