What I Wish I Knew
Next weekend I am missing my 30th year college reunion. I missed the 25th, the 20th, the 15th too. The last one I made was the 10th – in 1998, two years before chronic illness entered my life at 33.
If I had known on the day I graduated from Vassar that I would have less than 12 years before I got sick with a debilitating illness, I would have made other choices. I had no idea I would spend nearly 2 decades of my life in bed sick with fatigue, weakness and pain – living a very constrained life and perforce a much different reality. Few of those youthful dreams, aspirations and plans have come to fruition.
Over those 12 years of health, I got fired, went to law school and got my first F, waited on tons of tables (at times with Paul Ryan), studied in Italy, bought my first apartment, and eventually secured my dream job at PBS headquarters in DC. And I started studying part-time for my masters in creative writing at night.
And then there were the love affairs that I barely made time for because I was so focused on my career. I didn’t pursue the most serious one because he didn’t seem to be interested unless I uprooted my life and relocated to the mid-West. I loved my life too much and him too little for that.
In the midst of all that living, at the prime of my life, I got sick. I got mysteriously and seriously sick. I received multiple misdiagnoses and even made a pilgrimage to the Mayo Clinic. I tried everything recommended and then some. My world went upside down and tossed me around. I confronted the hard fact that there’s a big difference between a treatment and a cure, and it turned out doctors could offer me neither.
Weeks stretched to months stretched to years, and more years and more years and more years. Now decades.
“Pain expands the time,” as Emily Dickinson acutely notes. (#967) I have had expansive time to consider, well, everything.
At the age of 52, looking back, here is what I know now that I wished I knew then, half a lifetime ago ::
1 / SEEK OUT TRUTH
Be keen to know the truth. I don’t mean facts though those are important, now increasingly important, too. Not everything can be looked up on Google. What I mean is emotional truth. I mean the truth that is revealed in stories. Seek out stories that move you and connect you to the deepest part of yourself. As Kafka wrote to a friend, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” (From a letter to Oskar Pollak dated January 27, 1904.) Look for stories that challenge you, break you open and show you truths, your truths. Stories are powerful and can enliven your life, brighten the world and change minds by illuminating truth.
2 / BE CURIOUS
Do not allow your assumptions to blind you. Ask more. Know more. Dig deeper. Always nurture and maintain that confidence to inquire. Be curious about ideas, other people, other cultures, other ways of doing things. Even once you become a “master of the universe” know that the true masters are not over-confident and continue to inquire. The others are just poseurs.
And ask with delight, joy and a lightness. Challenge assumptions, thought and convention – your own and others – with a light touch and tone. You’ll learn a lot from the answers you’ll elicit. Keep asking, “Why?”
3 / EXPAND YOUR HORIZONS
Leave your comfort zone because you may not be able to later. Doing so is always hard but trust me, it does not get easier. Move away from home; travel to learn. You’ll discover so much about yourself by contrast. Immerse yourself in another culture, and learn what is pivotal and essential for you. Discover what is truly universal. And I do not just mean abroad; the United States encompasses many cultures, all of which will show you different ways of living a life. So venture to explore.
4 / FIND MEANING
So much of life is magical and miraculous and mysterious. Stay open to these aspects of life which are non-linear, non-logical and non-sense. If you have a tendency to shut yourself off to those aspects, do not dismiss them. Do not be one of the “walking dead,” living your life without reflection, without course-correction, without happiness.
Life is not fair and often unpredictable. Much of life will seem like nonsense and stupid. You’ll need meaning beyond the tangible to survive.
5 / MARK PASSAGES
Create meaningful rituals in your life to mark passages, achievements, and failures. They bind us to each other, our pasts, and our stories. Seek out and adopt rituals for yourself that speak to your heart. Mark the seasons, mark the holidays, mark big events. Go to your reunions. You may not be able to later.
6 / NURTURE CONNECTION
Find people to listen without judgement and to serve as a refuge for you for when you face great adversity. Because you will. You may be shocked and saddened to discover that you can not rely on your family, so do not bet on them as a fallback. Nurture a web of people you love to support each other. If you ever feel defeated or you can not go on, reach out to them. Nothing is more essential than human connection.
7 / THING OF OTHERS
Rabbi Hillel in 100 B.C.E. said in a sermon, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” The arrogance of youth is a cliché for a reason. You don’t yet know what you don’t know.
I got hit young and hard and had that youthful arrogance knocked out of me. I learned I was not as self-reliant as I felt. I discovered I needed others. And I hated it. The prior ignorance of my needs did not make my actual neediness less true. I just wasn’t aware of those needs until I got sick. Being needy is not a dirty, shameful need. We are all interdependent.
I recommend you counter that inclination towards self-involvement with a deliberate and assiduous effort to consider others. Consider their experiences, their points of view, their needs. Volunteer. Offer help. You never know when you may need some help yourself.
8 / ALLOW YOURSELF TO FAIL
Be willing to fail. Don’t avoid it. And anyway failure is only failure if you refuse to get up and try again. Failure that does not defeat you and stop you is just experience.
Failures will season you. Go ahead and take some time to mourn. Be sad. Grieve. Regroup. Rest. Then use that experience. Learn from the experience. And try again. And again. And again, if necessary.
If you come up against an obstacle, an immovable force or block, figure out a way to nimbly side-step it. Do not try to be a determined skipper of a ship muscling and trying to overcome a bad storm. We can not change the weather. Storms will come. They make wreckage and create havoc. Be instead a creative chef and make the best you can of what’s available. Open the refrigerator door and see what’s available. Make something good out of what IS possible.
And when there is wreckage, know that the mess will not be because you were not strong or smart. Shit storms just happen, beyond our control. Pick up the pieces, be diligent, and keep going as best you can. If your dreams aren’t coming true, keep dreaming. Always dream and strive.
9 / SHOW KINDNESS
Remember to always be kind. Do not judge others. Ask questions – what is going on? What does it feel like? What can I do? Ask if you can help, and do not assume you know what to do. Ask because you may learn something that did not occur to you. It’s always worthwhile to ask how you can be kind.
Also know sometimes when nothing can be done, that’s okay too. Silent companionship can be just as powerful as a solace to the unsolvable. Be a witness. Let the other know they are seen. That their reality and truth are seen. That their suffering is seen. That alone can ameliorate a lot.
Remember too that pain is invisible. That when one is hurt, withdrawal is a natural protection. Remember not to be dismissive or disparaging of those necessary protections. Everyone is doing the best they can to survive as best as their strength and awareness allows.
Be kind to yourself too. Don’t forget that. If you don’t know how to be kind to yourself, your kindness to others will not be as effective. Practice kindness at home and in your own thoughts towards yourself.
10 / FACE FEAR
Do not let fear stop you from doing now what you want. Do not postpone what you want to do until later. If you want it, get it. If you want to experience it, do it. If you want love, risk it. Drink life with thirst. It may not work out but you’ll survive.
My biggest regret is that I never married and never had kids. That pains me still, with every breath. I did not know my health and time would be stolen from me. I did not know marriage and motherhood would be stolen from me. So do not allow fear to paralyze you. Everything is figure-out-able. You will figure it out if things do not work, so do not wait.
Plus, divorce isn’t the end of the world. Death is. Actually, I don’t believe death is the end of the world, just this world.
11 / MAKE LOVE
If you’re attracted to someone then just do it. Unless, and it’s a biggie, making love hurts another or if it’ll harm the two (or three or four) of you. There is absolutely no reason not to enjoy your body and the pleasures your body provides. Be present in your body and not off somewhere in your head. Don’t worry about what others think. Don’t worry about how you will feel after.
Enjoy sex while you can, as often as you can, with whomever you can. No, actually make that with whomever makes your stomach flip. Be excited and act on that excitement and make your body breathless with wonder and love.
12/ FORGIVE OFTEN
And forgive. Often. Anger and resentment is a poison you drink yourself; the person who wronged you does not care as much as you do. Set boundaries as you need for your present life and moving forward, but let the past go. Let the past be what it is – a lesson.
A regular meditation practice changes your brain and will help you forgive more and fear less. And meditation helps you to be more resilient and happy too.
13 / PLAY A LOT
Do silly fun things for no purpose other than delight. Do not forget how to play. Be willing to try new things and new ways of doing things. Try food you never ate as a child. Or food you did eat but hated, because tastes change.
See plays and go to museums. Art matters. Learn the history of art, and you’ll learn the history of the world.
Explore the unusual. Engage with those unlike you and with ideas that repulse you.
Read lots of books and also poetry. Nothing is more magical than a surprising turn of phrase that makes you see something new and makes you feel less alone.
14 / ENGAGE THE WORLD
Do not postpone pleasure. Do not only reward successes. Comfort yourself when you fail.
Experiment and explore to promote the creativity that breeds innovation. Take that less-travelled path. Engage with the world to find new ideas and insights. Look for parallels within your expanded world view. Push and propel the status quo to a new and a better and a fairer and a kinder world. Innovate.
15 / TRUST YOURSELF
Do not wait for old age to credit your ideas, your experience, your thinking. Intuition is invaluable. Allow your instinct to bubble up by creating space and times of silence. Do not always busy yourself with busyness to avoid the noise of your thoughts. Your thoughts and feelings and reactions are valid and valuable. Listen to them. Listen to yourself.
Do not be afraid of what you know and what you can do. Trust trying. Trust optimism. Trust progress. Trust truth. Trust faith. Trust stories. Trust love. But most of all trust yourself.
I’d wanted to post this essay earlier in May, but my symptoms acted up and prevented that. I should have started earlier.
Overall, that’s my advice: start early.
Want to be married? Start early. Want to run for office? Start early. Want to be a parent? Start early. Want to move and live elsewhere? Start early. Want to write a book? Start early.
With delight and and courage and adventure, go. Go. Go. Go. Go. Go to your destiny. Do not take your time for granted. Or your health.
Start right now.
What have you learned since you got sick?
What did you wish you knew?
What would you like to start early, today or tomorrow?
How can you play this week?
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