We all began as unwilling participants in the act of living. Whether or not your outlook on this ordeal has changed is of your own volition.
I learned at a young age that the matter that makes us up was not created and also cannot be destroyed. Nonetheless, we were born in some fashion and, one day, the energy of our being will be recycled by the universe in ways I can only guess. I often wonder, though, how do we go on knowing that is what’s to come?
Death is maybe one of the few things we all have in common. But I think we spend most of the time trying to focus on the everyday, the monotony, the 2:00 appointments, the grocery lists, and the number of minutes we can remain beneath the sheets before beginning the morning commute. Because I know, personally, the moment I let myself float too far I am done for. I don’t often willingly like to think about it only because it will never stop being a conundrum, a side-effect of existence. And it’s perhaps not even the knowing that death is inevitable– in fact, I’ve talked myself down from flirting with the idea of it. It’s really more the not knowing that follows that is frightening. I don’t feel qualified for the task. Existing is all I know how to do, however painfully or weary or confused. This dilemma takes hold of my brain at unsuspecting moments.
For example, I spent the morning googling ROTH IRAS??? Trying to find out if I’m still young enough to one day have more than I need; if not too much youth has already been wasted on youthful pursuits. How silly of me! I crunch numbers and calculate the possible value of my life in a cubicle until my head aches. What moments ago seemed utterly necessary now triggers existential dread. Because what do I need a million dollars for at 65, when existence itself is very possibly coming to a close? When the only thing we are promised is to lose everything. No matter how good or beautiful or wonderful living is, it comes hand in hand with decay. What a funny pair of friends. And I must not only face dissolution, but witness everything and everyone I love face it with me, slowly but surely. Year by year, it seems the world becomes more and more unfamiliar. Yet, that’s only if I’m lucky! I could cease to exist tomorrow, or they could, and no one– including me– would give a fuck how many meaningless dollars are in my retirement fund.
But hear me out. I know that I’m going to die and sometimes, despite that fact, I am in love with living. I fall in love with kind strangers and tall trees and the smell of libraries and the first sip of coffee in the morning. I’m in love with first kisses and the second and the tenth, with children’s laughter, with grey skies, and with writing my thoughts down in such a way that I feel heard without ever having said a word aloud.
But I’m not in love with the conditions of life. I hate and love it with all my being; my whole silly and important and tiny, tangible existence. It means nothing and everything. The rules of this life are tragically unfair, unequal, immoral, and overwhelmingly perplexing. I don’t know what kind of merciful creator set us in motion here. I am only here for as much good as I can muster and as little pain as I can inflict. And I am aware of all the pain everywhere, all the time. If we could see all the suffering laid out, like a carpet unfurling beneath our feet, and all the catastrophes exploding and all the tears falling somewhere all at once we would drown in it. We would go mad.
But we don’t, because we zoom in. I am trying so desperately to live from one day to the next that the idea of a retirement fund is romantic– and nonsensical. Fuck, all of it is. We’re swimming in contradictions.
My therapist once told me that it seems like I, ironically, use half of my symptoms to cope with the remainder of them. I imagine my mind as orange slices, and my fingers sticky with trying to hold together one, sweet whole. In the throws of depression, I reassure my drowning brain that oxygen is coming, that we will come up for air and that joy will then, in fact, feel utterly overwhelming. I tell myself it isn’t real, the longing for nothing– or the unknown that follows nothing– is imaginary. By that logic, I suppose, so is the exhilarating ache of breathing again. Logic… it doesn’t know how real imaginary feels. The point is, I read once in Terri Cheney’s memoir, Manic, that “the cruelest curse of the disease, [bipolar disorder], is also its most sacred promise: You will not feel this way forever.”
I used to believe that this particular brand of suffering made me sick, but now I think it really just makes me even more alive. Because everything about living is no joy without pain, no points of light without a dark backdrop. Every part of me is at war with itself, a sea of multiplicities, but the universe probably feels the same way. So being alive is also to decay. So you find yourself stuck with the terrible luck of encountering all this, but at the same time it is in the face of the very infinitesimal chance that we exist at all– that we can make art and give compliments and learn new things.
The glass was never half empty or half full it was always both, simultaneously. It was always simply just holding liquid and we are lost in the waves. To decisively pick a side is to choose to fit the whole world into a viewfinder that suits us, which is fine. But I am not in the business of fitting in a box; I am in the habit of loving everything outside the lines.
When I try to decide whether the world is wonderful or miserable, simply because it can be, I cannot pin it down. Surety goes straight through, like trying to pin a butterfly to a cork board. It just flies away– flies in whirling arcs above my head, because I am thinking in circles. You can’t have one without the other. If you think about it, it is really both terrible and beautiful that we’re even here to contemplate life and death and to arrange all this chaos into something that might have sense. We can be aware of all this and still, on our tiny and important scales, seek happiness, stability, growth, and laughter. We are here, in existence, long enough to talk about how mean it can be. What a strange gift. I didn’t ask for it, but it has been granted to me nonetheless, and so I will stay curious. I can put aside the problem of death in order to understand why I am alive.