Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately. ~Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Life happens. Sometimes, it happens in ways—good and bad—that you could never expect. Sometimes the change is obvious, and sometimes you catch yourself in a vulnerable moment and realize that something is different—that an episode has come to an end, and that the next one is not obvious. Sometimes, you have to let go altogether of the story that used to be your story, realizing it is no longer, and that you are now a character in a new story. Sometimes, you find yourself in the dreaded position of having to answer a simple and exceedingly difficult question you thought you already knew the answer to, and never thought you’d have to answer again: now what?
I have written before about the virtues of living as a self-expressive artist, and I am about to hold myself to my own words. Self-expressive art expresses the life of the artist. Inevitably, this means that when life changes, the art that expresses it must also change. But what is a self-expressive artist to do when life changes such that the implications of the change are yet unknown, still unfolding, still require some working through? How does one express in art such things as confusion, bafflement, change in progress, change in sensibilities, change in identity? It’s one thing to express something you know and can articulate, but how does one express not knowing? As a self-expressive artist, this is the only answer I have: you will know when I know. Until then, expect the inconsistency in my life to carry into my work.
It is a common platitude to speak of the healing powers of art, nature, contemplation, etc. This is of little help when you find yourself attempting to make art out of the chaos in your mind, wondering when the healing will start. Lesson one: healing is not guaranteed. Lesson two: healing takes time. Lesson three: in the process of healing, you may not know on a given day that you are indeed healing. Now what?
It has been nearly five years now since I began experiencing mysterious health symptoms. It took another year to get a partial diagnosis, and another two to learn (what I hope is) the rest of the story. Can the healing begin now? Instinct still wants to pursue life as if nothing had changed, but something did change. Lesson four: healing is not the same as a cure. Now what?
It’s one thing to learn to live with physical disability, but another to learn to live with a cognitive abnormality—to know that there is something in your mind that may perceive the world in ways that are not true, but that feel true, and to know that you can’t always tell the difference in real time. Losing my mind is no longer a metaphor. Lesson five: don’t take anything for granted. Now what?
Now this: enough of this useless morbidity.
I have always been a rational thinker, and to lament my condition is an irrational thing. I am still alive. There are still many things in my life that are meaningful to me. In the words of Everett Ruess, “while I am alive, I intend to live.” I just need to figure out what that means for me now.
I have never been prone to delusion, nor a very hopeful person, and life has so far not given me reason to reconsider these attitudes. I was never under the illusion that to live is to chart some course toward some preconceived end, and then to follow it to some inevitable conclusion. On the other hand, I have always been acutely aware of the one conclusion that truly is inevitable, and of the futility of charting courses to it, let alone pretending that any other conclusion is possible.
If there is a purpose to life, it is to put your living moments to the best possible use. Paradoxically, what amounts to best use is not a known quantity, nor the same for everyone. And yet, many bet their lives on some preconceived best use, before ever learning enough about the world and about themselves to make such decision. I’m confident that many readers will affirm my sense that the older I get, the more I realize how ill-equipped I was in younger years to predict the best use of my own living moments and to preempt the lessons I was yet to learn. I am grateful for dumb luck (it would be hypocritical of me to call it wisdom or foresight), that I refrained from making some such predictions in my salad days.
It is because of my unwillingness as a younger person to decide, or to accept as given others’ decisions, why, how, or where I should live my life, what my opinions and allegiances should be, or the things I should consider proper and worthwhile. I never bothered with long-term plans and, after much struggle, I managed to design my life so that on most days I can wake up in the morning and decide what to do with my day. Yes, I am lucky. But if you knew what it took to get this lucky, you may think twice about whether you want the same luck for yourself. In fact, you shouldn’t. Second-hand luck is nothing to finding your own.
In past writings, I sometimes preempted giving life advice by saying I am reluctant to do so. Well, despite my reluctance, in hindsight I realize just how much such advice I still dished out over the years. It seems I am now at an age where I get to hear fairly regularly from people who (despite my disclaimers) followed some of my advice, and found it useful. I always read such accounts with great relief and gratitude. So—no more disclaimers. I am about to give life advice. Well, maybe one disclaimer: follow at your own risk.
I have accomplished a better life for myself than I could ever have imagined at any point before it became reality. I took risks, I worked hard, I persevered through the down times, I failed and dusted myself off and kept going, I followed my proverbial bliss, and the rest of the self-help platitudes. While all of these contributed to my statement in the previous sentence, another ingredient was needed—one that self-help gurus like to pretend does not exist—I got extremely lucky.
It may seem that I was lucky in accomplishing perhaps the only life where a misfit like me may thrive, but that misses an important point. The luckiest thing that happened to me, happened long before any of the things that now make my life seemed even remotely possible. My luck, in fact, was to realize at a young age, when I had no plausible reason to know it, the futility of expectations.
I almost fell victim to the ethos of templates: get a job, get a place, build a career, strive for more power and money and responsibilities, raise a family, etc. All, without a doubt, are good things for some people. But I didn’t know if they were good for me, and I didn’t want to make commitments of such magnitude without this knowledge. Despite common opinion, sometimes the worst thing that can happen to you is to achieve exactly what you thought you wanted, only to realize that it fails to satisfy. Sometimes the value of not doing can exceed, by orders of magnitude, the value of doing. Sometimes, the best choice you can make in life, is to wait and see.
Rather than pick from the menu of predictable possibilities, I set out to find knowledge, to experience life, to learn a thing or two about the world and about myself, so when the time came to make some profoundly consequential decision—the kind that cannot be undone—I would have at least have some basis on which to make such decisions. This has turned out to be the one lucky decision that made my life today possible—the lucky decision that made possible a life of adventure, mystery, and beauty the likes of which I did not know was even possible until encountering it.
And as years went by and those times came when big decisions had to be made, I could make them with a degree of confidence even against staggering odds, knowing I had already lived.
I don’t know how things will unfold from here. I am coming to terms with the fact that to be in my head today feels like waking up in a room different from the one I went to sleep in a few years ago. There are familiar fixtures in this new room, but also much I still need to investigate and learn. But I take comfort in knowing that what I have always done will continue to serve me well: live now. Because I can.
I woke up today, drank my coffee, smelled the perfumed desert air after recent rains, considered my possibilities, and decided to write this. And I learned something. And the day is still young. Tomorrow I hope to learn more.