Have you ever watched someone die? I mean, up close and personal while holding their hand as they take their last breath? I have, and, so far at least, it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life. Why am I starting off Part III of this series with such a dark tone, you ask?
Sitting outside in the rain this morning having coffee with Daisy, as she and I do every day of the year independent of the weather, I was thinking about how I ended Part II and where I felt I needed to go with Part III in order to drive home the prevailing point I want to make about this notion of “Meaning & Purpose,” why you should care, and what you might consider doing in your own life to find (or improve) it for yourself and the people around you that you care about.
Since I am not what you call a “linear thinker,” my thoughts were ricocheting around in my head like a pinball, going in 100 different directions all at the same time. I was thinking about Daisy’s failing health and that I didn’t think I had much time left with her, which led me through my ongoing complaints about all the money I spent at the vet only to wind up right back where we started $1,200 and 30 days ago. And just how God damn futile it is to drive yourself crazy over things you can’t control. These thoughts led me back to my grandmother… Always reminding me that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”… And, just like clockwork (whenever grandma gets in my head, my mother is never far behind her), and BANG!-I was bedside in my mother’s hospice room, holding her hand and talking to her in soothing and reassuring tones as her body finally let go of all the troubles she was leaving behind for the rest of the world to attend to.
I can still see the nurses’ faces, taking off their stethoscopes and draping them around the back of their necks as they looked at me and said she had passed. I can close my eyes and think I can smell the air in that room and hear the sounds of shuffling feet as everyone left the room to give us a moment for my last goodbyes before ushering me out to an adjoining porch where I could smoke a cigarette and process everything that had just happened while they attended to the business of dressing her in the clothes we had picked out for her to wear for the funeral that would now have to be frantically organized to hold in her memory.
Since everything in the universe seems to require context to be understood, it occurred to me that in those last moments of my mother’s life, my purpose was to be there with her so she didn’t have to die alone. I can’t help but wonder, though, if my purpose at that moment wasn’t also served by selfishly avoiding the guilt of having made her die alone were I not to have been present when she did. But then, how many other countless purposes were served both by her death and my presence in the larger context of these natural processes- life, death, mourning, sadness, and so forth?
Non-linear thinker that I am, it wasn’t long before I realized that I was overthinking the whole thing; that we exist in the first place gives us meaning, and doing something, anything, with that existence is what gives us purpose. And to put a finer point on this, the longer we live, the more both our meaning and our purpose will change.
This is a hard truth about life, whether it is the life of a homo sapien or any other species that exists, and it does not have to be contextual to be understood. The longer any of us live, the more things beyond our control are going to happen in the world around us, which, unavoidably, has some effect on us, however great or small. And, when change occurs around you, in order to sustain your own ongoing existence, you will have to adapt accordingly. And by adapt, I mean make your life continue to have meaning and change whatever is necessary to ensure that it continues to have purpose.
Having reserved enough space for a decent close to this series, I will use a piece of my own life experience to illustrate my point on the matters of meaning and purpose. Accordingly, let’s start things off by considering this: as existence ebbs and flows, wherever we can fend off changes that do not serve our individual greater purpose, we must forcefully try to resist them. So, too, must we accept those changes over which we have no control and adjust the meaning and purpose of our lives in response to them.
When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I moved in with her to watch over her final journey through the disease. 4 years later (and six weeks after she had passed), I was in a hospital bed, sporting one of those sexy hospital Johnnys, delirious on Dilaudid, I was waking up to find myself at the beginning of a recovery I had not planned (after a third stroke I never saw coming) and was being introduced to a new neurologist.
He told me I would never work or drive again and that I could not live alone unsupervised, he explained to me that the vision loss was permanent but that we would get busy figuring out together how we were going to get through the transition to my new life. And two years later, literally, with every aspect of my life having been changed in epic ways (over which I had no control), I was sitting in his examination room for my final appointment before transitioning to annual checkups. I tell this story in great detail in an entry, the link to which I will post at the bottom.
The gist of how that last appointment went is that it felt a lot like graduation day in high school; sans the cap, gown, and tassel, I remember thinking he looked pretty proud of himself. He told me how proud he was of the progress I had made. And announced that – having been patched up and all put back together like Humpty Dumpty- I had a good 20 or 30 years left in me to live out a good, long, and productive life. Truth be told, I’d have to say the man was beaming.
I remember looking up at him, feeling a little frantic and distraught, and saying, in these exact words, “What the fuck am I supposed to do with myself for the next 20 or 30 years in this condition? I can’t read or write, can’t work, can’t drive, and you guys won’t even let me live alone unsupervised?” And without even a hint of hesitation, and coming from a man half my age, the response was both incredibly complex and terrifyingly simple all at the same time; he simply stated, “Find something that gives meaning and purpose to your life.”
I remember wanting to argue and disagree and give the speech all over again about what I couldn’t ever do again or would struggle with for the rest of my life. I wanted to reject the advice and insist such wisdom might work for others but couldn’t possibly apply to me. But I didn’t. Instead, I kept my mouth shut even as my mind was racing at Mach speed, and we quietly did our long-established routine of exchanging fist-bumps (germ avoidance and all that) and said our goodbyes.
As I made the 2-mile walk back home, I had plenty of time to navel-gaze and internalize and process our conversation while, at the same time, freaking the fuck out in my head about how this new life was going to work itself out; I began to realize that my fear, dread, and anxiety had very little to do with how I had gotten to this point and was almost entirely about whether I had it in me to make the most out of whatever life I had left to live.”
Link to “Karma & The Doctor”
Like snowflakes and fingerprints, each Homo sapien living today or that has ever lived is singularly unique while, at the same time, in the right context, is no different than anyone else across the entire history of our species.
Our ongoing individual survival depends on our ability to take care of ourselves and attend to our own personal needs. Our species, collectively, cannot continue without reproduction… Basic Birds & Bees stuff. These things demand an ongoing interaction between us, and it has been the establishment and ongoing maintenance of civilized societies that has allowed these things to continue so we can avoid our own Extinction.
And with all that said, I am of the opinion that everything beyond these fundamentals is literally nothing more than layers of complication we have collectively added over the centuries under the auspices of continuously trying to improve the quality of life and overall Human Condition.
The Hermit in me, watching the world go by outside my window living in my tree fort, believes the only way to get our species away from the Cliff’s Edge of self-destruction is to separate from so many collectives behaving as if the needs of the collective supersede those of the individual. Much smarter people than myself believe even more collectives than we already have would improve the rapidly deteriorating situation all of us can clearly see, taking place around the world. I acknowledge that our collective weakness is in our apparent inability to strike a mutually beneficial balance between these two Dynamics before none of us is left; if ever there was a time in human history that the world needed to re-discover its meaning and purpose, surely this is it.