I have been thinking about my own mortality a lot recently. Winter tends to do this to people (or so I hear, in literature, but maybe that's all poetic device). I've always been aware of it even as a child-- I was deeply concerned about my own fragility constantly. In many ways, I'm thankful for this, since it's given me a lot of time to come to terms with it. This past year in particular has been one where I have felt constantly aware of how quickly and senselessly life can be taken and cut short. And yet, I find myself continuing to search for satisfaction and peace in mortality. I really want to get joke-y here, but I feel like I shouldn't. Like I should sit in how uncomfortable it is to talk about something so big.
If discussions on death and suicide are difficult for you, please read with care or bail if that's what's best for you.
These past few weeks have been beautiful. I have been restless since fall to begin on new adventures and find deeper meaning in how I chose to live. I am remembering the things that I hold true in my core, and rediscovering how important those things are to me. Between working on my holiday cards and having many friends from different eras of my life visit, I'm reconnecting to my life's work: gratitude and affection. I write about this here because maybe my feelings about this will help someone else process their own mortality, whether things ring true to them or if this just provides a springboard for their own musings.
When I was growing up, especially in my teens, there were a lot of deaths around me. Not in my close circle, luckily, but very much in my communities. From suicides to accidents, too many of my peers' lives ended early. It will still take years before the number of weddings I am invited to will overtake the amount of memorials I have received notices for. The time when most people feel invincible, I spent in a deep awareness that not only was I mortal, but that so many of my peers had already died-- it wasn't an abstract reality, it was in front of me.
During this time, I started to really consider what would realistically make me okay with dying so young, god forbid it happened to me? Moreover, which deaths were preventable, and what could I do to stop them from happening to the people I cared about-- many of whom had difficult home situations or were struggling with newfound mental illness that they did not yet have the tools to cope with? And maybe not all suicides are preventable, but maybe a lot of them are delay-able. Maybe more days are winnable.
I've generally grown up with a fairly strong sense of agency, but building a relationship with death itself-- in real life and not just my sometimes-dark imagination-- was a massive task. It's one I'm still grappling with and will likely be challenged by my entire life.
I learned that a lot of things that seemed important were not central to me dying in peace. I didn't care about my grades or what I looked like when I died. My life seemed, through this lens, so comfortably small. My ambitions seemed less central to who I am, and more decorative than core to my identity. I have always aimed big and high, but in examining my mortality, I gave myself more permission to be broad and deep. Gold stars and achievements seemed so much less important than how I felt about myself and the world and how I engaged with things like people and art and ideas. Those were the things I wanted to spend time on. I felt so much relief in accepting that I am finite and that it's okay if I don't conquer the world.
I also found myself deeply prioritizing people-- which also meant letting people go, and accepting small or nonexistent roles in their lives. I recognized how finite my time is and how finite other people's time is as well, and detached myself from the expectation that I deserved anyone's lifetime or that they deserved mine simply for existing in proximity to each other. I consciously decided that I wanted deeper, better relationships with people and that I would let go of people easily if that wasn't possible. I also committed myself to welcoming people who tried to come back if deeper, quality relationships were more possible again. Relationships aren't always linear. Rejection can be positive. We need to have the space for good things and people in our lives and that means sometimes we let things and people go to make room.
The conclusion I came to-- and try to always come back to--is that I am alive, first and foremost, to be unafraid of loving people. I think we are afraid to let people know we care for them and at the same time, a lot of us forget how loved we are, or feel under appreciated. I don't believe that love cures all things, but I do think it can make a lot of things at least a little more bearable. In terms of my life here on earth, I really don't care what I "achieve." I care about following through on my feelings and letting the people I care about feel loved. The things I feel for others are meant to be vocalized and shared. I hate words left unsaid. I have seen affection and gratitude swallowed up and hidden when it might have been better externalized and shared. I'm trying my hardest not to do that.
Women are often asked to set themselves on fire to keep others warm, and I do not advocate overdrawing emotional energy purely for others' benefit. That said, I get a lot of fulfillment from sending someone a nice card every once in a while, when I have time. Every once in a while, someone will let me know that I made their day, or helped them deal with something hard, and that makes these things spiritually and emotionally replenishing. A mindset built around positivity and encouragement and affection for others pushes me to be more hopeful, even when situations aren't. When a bunch of people (including myself) were laid off, I went shopping for a bunch of encouraging cards and congratulations cards with the intent to send them to friends as they found their way to new jobs. That felt so much better than being sad.
It's a challenge to not harden my heart, but I think if I can keep it strong and warm, I can be courageous and help others be courageous as well.
Having this kind of mindset has been a blessing. It's helped me dream bigger for the achievement goals I do have, because failure is not identity-shattering, and that willingness to embrace a certain level of risk has helped me live bigger. It's also helped me live more honestly and cope better with rejection. Bad things can happen and I will still be okay and valuable and myself, so long as I love and have gratitude for the people in my life.
When I find myself in a bad mental state, I turn to gratitude and affection, and those two things help me find my way through any situation. These things are so trivial in some senses, but if all I ever will be is temporary, I think I'm okay with that. On the very broad spectrum of ways to cope with mortality, ranging from immense achievement to terrifying control issues, I feel happy here. My life will never be about big things, it will always be about how I choose to bring positive feelings into the world and connect to others. Whenever I die, that's all I'll measure my life by.
We are all so perilously finite, but also wonderfully so, I think.