Sitting alone eating lunch, hearing the play-screams and silly arguments of children in the room above me, knowing they are stoked on life made me wonder where my childhood stoke went. I remember never feeling depressed. I remember getting sad when I broke a toy, or when a pet died, or when I had to go to school on a snowy day. But sadness isn’t depression, sadness isn’t the angst I feel some days. Sadness is a feeling of loss, but a loss that is possible to replenish, whereas angst is anxiety of eternal loss, knowledge that the life you lead will one day be erased, as will anything you thought, did or wanted to accomplish. Vincent Van Gogh and F. Scott Fitzgerald are viewed as geniuses now, but in their lifetimes were not able to relish the joy and gratification of knowing their work was appreciated. They may have felt the dread of despondency, the worry of wonder and the misery of mortality just like we all do, despite their fascinating contributions to the arts. They are just two examples in a world of creativity, burst into existence only to sputter out in a brief glimpse within this interminable world.
We have lost beautiful creatures to extinction, lost works of art to wars, great minds to superstitious sacrifices and yet, it all continues. This world goes on without you, without your ancestors and without the dinosaurs. This world might continue after the sun burns out, just in a new form. Conceivably, as some scientists have postulated, the Big Bang was just another cataclysmic and infinitely powerful collision of all matter that exists, imploding upon itself in the ceaseless expand and contract cycle of this universe. And, by some freak mathematical accident, in this particular sequence, our planet settled, like the proverbial Goldilocks, into a comfortable place next to a dominant star that was “just right” for our lives to be sprung into existence.
How can we not gaze into the stars, or into the Grand Canyon, or at the Himalayas, or even stand beside the ocean without understanding the vastness of our lack of true comprehension of our reality? Perhaps, as we have evolved the capability to contemplate mortality and impermanence in our own unique imagination, we have created a strange new anxiety within ourselves.
Life seems so easy to the children. Their imagination is boundless but ground in tangibility. I think we lose that childish ease the moment we discover sex, or at least the idea of sex. Is there anything else more motivating and distracting to a person? So much great art derives from lust and love that couldn’t be made without those feelings. I have started to incorporate the three Greek versions of love into my life: agape—familial love, philia—friendly love and eros—passionate love. I try to tell all those that fit those roles that I love them, and aim to mean it and show it.
But that passion exclusive to eros is a fantastically formidable type. It is the universal desire. It is the reason Buddhism can never work for me (that and pizza not being served in temples). It’s hard to imagine the dedication of a monk to acquiesce to the celibate (and pizza-less) lifestyle willingly. Buddha taught that desire leads to suffering, John Mellencamp taught that sometimes love can “hurt so good.”
I think about these questions of love, eternity, inspiration, anxiety and their relevance to my world and therefore they slip into my writing often about the existential dilemma. Our choices determine our life output; and that autonomy can be overwhelming. The decision to talk to a beautiful woman and risk rejection, to walk home instead of a taxi and risk robbery, to spend money instead of saving and risk poverty, to take chances requires courage and confidence. How are we willing to live our only life?
Last week, I read the news of death and destruction in Oklahoma. I saw the pictures of an exceptionally powerful tornado dynamically and randomly raging through a small suburban city. The damage was extensive, and the deaths unprovoked. The two schools that were hit must have been full of so much young energy and excitement and that charming stoke that kids have. It’s a shame to lose that to a vicious, yet beautiful force of nature. (I wondered how I would have reacted with my students if I had heard the news over the P.A.)
Then, a viral video caught my attention of a boy in Minnesota with a rare form of cancer, who was dying with aplomb by making his last days about positivity and happiness. He was inspiring, despite knowing his candle was reaching the end of the wick. He wrote uplifting music with friends, took jaunty picnics with his young girlfriend, played silly high school games and let those around him absorb his generously genial vibrations. (I wondered, not really knowing, if I could have lived while dying so confidently.)
Lastly, Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist of the first rock n’ roll band to catch my adolescent fancy—The Doors, died at 74. His skills were prodigious and his life, presumably, was lived in a pursuit of individual passions. He lived a long, remarkable life, full of impressive milestones while making excellent music with one of the most indisputably wild and captivating characters from the time when American music was at its zenith, Jim Morrison. (I wondered if I had the talent to be remembered in a public obituary.)
Three separate occurrences of death, unconnected to each other, but connected within my purview of reality. Each death held meaning to me for a different reason. Each death was due to differing causes. Each death could have hit any of us. It’s a cliché to talk about ‘how life is short’, or that ‘we must live every day like it’s our last.’ We all know this; we all forget it; we all re-remember it. Those paradigms of a mental mantra are meant to help us see our life as if we had already lived it.
When you die, will you be happy with your eulogy? When you die, what will you leave behind with loved ones? What memories exist of you in the minds of those you have encountered? These are not comfortable questions to ask. It adds too much purpose to a life that can sometimes feel like an endless eat, work, and excrete trek to the end.
There are always ephemeral glances into the bliss of a life well-lived. The vacations, the family photo albums, the late nights with friends, the completed projects, the success of achievements, the audacity of trying after failures, the smiles from strangers all add to our desire to live harmoniously, gregariously. The fact is, no matter what the eternal truth of our existential actuality is, we are here now. One day in the future, when then has become now, we will not be.
So, if we generate the positivity within ourselves, it is possible for it to permeate out of us in radiant, invisible light-beams of benevolence and compassion, infecting those around us, creating a chain reaction of happiness that will forever exist outside of time infinitely expanding. It’s hard to believe or even to accept that it starts with you. It sounds so egocentric, but strictly speaking, you can only control yourself. You don’t have to be a world-famous musician, or a fantastic example of precocious maturity faced with inevitability, you must only be your best self. (I wonder if my best self involves having rough days when I feel depressed?)