"I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive." (Joseph Campbell)
When we are born, we’re given the greatest gift imaginable: life in a fantastic world. These two things — (1) life; (2) in a fantastic world -- no matter how badly we take them for granted — will always be our most valuable assets. We have life, and we get to live in a fantastic place.
Thoreau famously said that most of us have so little appreciation for these two gifts that we will end up dying without ever having truly lived. Erich Fromm echoed this sentiment by saying that the greatest tragedy in life is the fact that most of us die before we are fully born.
I was adopted by a young preacher and his wife, and they raised me in a very life-affirming setting. It wasn’t easy. They weren’t perfect. But I was given a good start in life. I learned to learn. I learned to listen. I learned to care deeply about the state of the world and the people in it. I learned that the world was made better when people like me rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
The idea that my family was special — that never occurred to me. I thought it was normal.
In the years since then I’ve learned how unusual my family was. Normal in some ways; extraordinary in others. It was a bit of a shock to discover just how unhappy most people are. The number of people in mental institutions, the thousands who suffer through chronic depression, the rate of suicide, divorce, child abuse — these things, I am sad to say, no longer surprise me even though I find it difficult to understand why, given the choice between joy and despair, people so often choose despair.
What troubles me most is how these people seem to have lost all respect for their own personhood. I fear that many people have forgotten how to like themselves and would, if they could, choose to be someone else.
They are suspicious of others, and, therefore, they keep themselves hidden. They fear risk and scoff at faith of any kind as if it were the most ludicrous notion imaginable. It is as if they have become addicted to anxiety and drama. They are too anxious to live in the present, too regretful to live in the past, and too frightened to live in the future. Too cynical to trust; too suspicious to love. They mumble negative and bitter accusations, blaming an uncaring God, neurotic parents, or a sick society for placing them in a hopeless hell in which they feel helpless.
It is as if they are completely unaware of their own potential, as if they take some sort of comfort in their self-imposed limitations. They “kill time” as if they had forever and never seem to seek out viable solutions to their miserable conditions.
They ignore the fact that time is running out and that, no matter who they are, not one of them will get out of this world alive. They see their existence as a dash between an unrequested birth and an unknowable death — something to be endured as painlessly as possible. They may engage in speculation about the afterlife but they ignore the essential reality that they are alive right now, that they have a life to live right now, that whatever they are now is not all they might be. We fail to realize that we could reinvent ourselves at any time we choose — that peace and love and joy are available to us.
Change and growth are possible. And that's what I'm on about lately. I'm changing and growing, and -- in the process -- I feel like I'm coming alive again. It's like there are these parts of me that have been dormant for so long, they've gone into a kind of suspended animation state. Like the colorful portions of my life had gone black-and-white for a spell.
But with the help of a great therapist, the mischievous work of the Holy Spirit, and some solid friends who love me more completely than I thought possible...I am discovering the power and joy of being alive.
Photo Credit: Elijah Hail