Life is what you make it. Dream bigger dreams. Choose your own adventure. Platitudes abound to reinforce the illusion that we humans are in charge of everything happening to us.
And yet, we live in a constant paradox whereby success is invariably our own doing while failure is always someone else’s fault.
We brag about success but are often unable to process its opposite. Instead of seeing failure as an opportunity to iterate, improve, and learn, we refuse to take responsibility for it.
Taking credit when things go right is empowering, but we believe our mistakes reflect badly on us — so we struggle to own up to them. Or embrace necessary self-reflection.
In an individualistic society like America where the only measure of human worth is money, modesty is seldom the byword. Here, you have to inspire yourself, be your own hero and greatest fan, and flash your cash as often as possible to show you’ve made it, often erasing the people who hosted your dream for you in the process.
The pursuit of profit at all cost to generate the envy of peers might fit in with the capitalism monsterhood we live under, but does it make for a good life?
What about love, given and received? What about those fellow humans you have met and are yet to meet who make life the unpredictable, wondrous, and addictive experience it is? What about the thrill of discovery and the joy of feeling your horizons expand whenever you learn something new?
And what of the soul-illuminating glow that comes from knowing another cares deeply about you?
Is the intangible worthless because we can’t commodify it, sell it, buy it, no matter what the hucksters would have us believe?
Everything is Uncertain Besides Death
When something unexpected like terminal illness upends our life, we say life has gone off-script.
But there was never a script to begin with. The only certainty we have in this life is that it’ll eventually end and that we probably won’t get to choose when or how it does.
In less than a year, cancer claimed my best friend and is trying to kill my beloved stepmom. While she isn’t ready to die yet, she’s realistic about her chances of survival.
“Dying doesn’t bother me,” she tells me on occasion, “but I don’t want to suffer. When the time comes, I don’t want to be incapacitated and high on morphine.”
I always remind her she doesn’t have to, not in the EU where death with dignity is possible and a patient’s choice. Depending on where you live in and local laws, this might mean travelling to another member state like the Netherlands, the country I came back from a few days ago and where I’m moving to. Portugal still has — and will always have — my heart but its laws do not.
“I know,” my stepmom replies. “But that’s going to be difficult to accept for my son and your dad.”
She jokes her bank account is overdrawn at the end of every month but that she is wealthy beyond belief. And she is: Loving is what she has always been, and that quality makes up her life.
All those who care about her are humans whom she knows personally, with whom she has shared experiences, years of her life, trips around the world. They’re not just pixels and data packets but the result of deep connections forged and nurtured over a lifetime.
Illness made my stepmom realize she was more loved than she ever knew as everyone rallied around her — family and friends and acquaintances alike — to support her. Really support her, not just pay lip service and say they care while complaining about her being a burden in the next breath. Which she could never be to anyone who knows her because, well, we love her unconditionally — as she does us.
If illness felled you tomorrow, would anyone be there for you? Would anyone hold your hand through thick and thin? Or would you become an inconvenience to all, not least to yourself?
And if the question shocks you, how do you feel about the answer?
Why do so many of us wait for tragedy to strike to take stock of where we’re at and what matters most?
I lost five years of my life to major depressive disorder and learned a lot about my marriage and American culture in the process. Any illusion I might have had about love was shattered even though love is also what saved me.
Because I had spent my life up to immigration focusing on people, places, and prose, it always used to be chock full of interestingness and human warmth, neither of which I could access for the five airtight years I lived under the yoke of depression. But when I emerged and started reconnecting with people, including my family, love and friendship arose from the darkness — even after a silence that lasted up to seven years in some cases.
While I’m never not struggling to make ends meet and I’m still rebuilding a life word by word, my daily reality is a love fest despite the constant heartache. My heart soars whenever I remember that love, vocation, and friendship are making this non-standard life possible.
Portable work and being a dual citizen enabled me to leave the US and come back to Europe so I could be with my parents; vocation makes work a joy and never a chore. Whether writing or editing, being among words brings me solace and a sense of stability.
Friendship, meanwhile, is squishing all the broken and battered parts of me together into an ongoing hug. Because friendship is just love by any other name, isn’t it?
I still have no idea what the future holds so I try and do my best every day. I strive to be as present as possible for my family while working as hard as I can and developing new projects. I also make a point of putting out as much love into this world as I manage to conjure up even though I first had to be reminded of what love is and what it isn’t.
Other humans did and continue to do that, including my lovely parents who are now in their 70s.
The illusion of control is a dangerous one. Not only can it make us behave as if we’re invincible, but it also fosters denial in the face of difficulty and precludes vital self-awareness.
Lead with calculating greed, manipulate others’ emotions, and your heart will never know what it means to be a human in the world — to belong among those who would do absolutely anything for you without hesitating.
While we can take charge of our life, we can never be fully in charge of it, as things will happen regardless.
All we can do is approach it with an open mind, an open heart, and roll with the punches when it becomes an exercise in crisis management.
True human wealth is love, belonging, shared moments, presence, and bonds that endure and withstand the vagaries of life.
Cherish those and taking uncertainty in your stride will become much easier.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.