A month ago, I might have titled this “Life Cycles.” Two weeks ago, it could have been “Transitions”. Now? Each of these falls terribly short of the mark. Setting out to put together my first long form in the shadow of a recent crippling personal loss, a song (“The Promise”) playing in my headphones, singing, “I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say, I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be,” and it occurred to me that “Chapters” will make more sense a thousand words from now.
The older you get, the more quickly you slow down and the more blurred your clarity of purpose becomes as you spend more time looking in your life’s rear-view rather than whatever stretch there is left through the front windshield. Time seems to slow, epiphanies become increasingly tiresome, and the general lust for change is routinely met with loathing and disdain. None of this is meant to suggest, of course, that life is any less worth living as your age advances; old people, more often than not, are the only things keeping the younger Generations from destroying themselves before they’ve had time to figure out how much they think they know that just isn’t so.
I was ‘that kid 50 years ago, my grandmother was that kid 100 years ago, and my grandkids are those kids today. I get it… You can’t really internalize how hard life can be if you don’t do the work necessary to live it well, and living it well requires a few early-in-life punches in the face and a couple of bloody noses to figure that out. That some apparently enthusiastically seek out bloody noses, presuming themselves to be smart enough to outsmart hundreds of thousands of years of the human experience, is merely simple and delicious comedy for the rest of us who embrace the concept of picking your battles. Darwin helped us understand this.
As broadly general as I can be, our species isn’t terribly different now than it was when we first stood upright hundreds of thousands of years ago. We have obviously evolved, added layer upon layer upon layer of complexity to the nature of human interaction, and have been busily killing each other in pursuit of some allegedly superior moral platitude that, if we’re being honest with each other, is nothing more than a self -perpetuating bloodlust for power and control over others.
There’s something else about us, though, specifically and uniquely to each of us, individually, that has never changed; everything about us begins and ends with the things we do to survive and tend to our personal needs. Everything else, as far as I’m concerned anyway, is a collection of distractions designed to fend off our fear of being bored or unproductive or, in the case of the social butterfly, alone and unpopular. By the grace of God, we Hermits do not suffer from this malady.
Intentionally oversimplifying to make my point here, using my personal self-induced Hermit lifestyle as an example, I get up in the morning, do stuff, take a nap, get up and do more stuff, and go to bed. I welcome your envy as I acknowledge most of you can’t jump on this particular lifestyle bandwagon, but the general point here is simply this: everything we do outside of self-care and survival is an individual choice about how we want to invest our time and effort in the world around us. I apologize for taking a paragraph longer than I originally intended to make my larger point here, but it seems to me that the longer we live, the more convoluted and diverse we become in the ways we complicate our lives. And it is these layers of complexity that I think we could more accurately call Chapters.
Trust me, this essay is no sort of life coach/Ann Landers self-help advice column; God knows how many slow-motion human train wreck chapters there are in my own life’s book of chapters, and I’m not one to give advice, but this idea of “chapters” helps wrap a little context around how our lives are organized.
Just think about any well-written novel organized into chapters that start at the beginning of the story and run serially through until the story is told. Of course, really good novels bounce around, make you bob & weave as a sidestep to give back story to some of the more important characters, and, if you think about it long enough, our reflections on our own lives flow pretty much the same way. But there’s one critically distinct difference between the chapters in a book and the chapters in our lived lives.
In the novel, the chapter has a clear beginning and a clear end. In real life, a great number of our chapters have clear beginnings but remain, in many cases, open until we die. There are easy examples where this isn’t entirely accurate, such as potty training if a chapter were to be constructed in such a way because we obviously end that chapter when we stop soiling ourselves… And don’t waste your time yelling at your computer screen, reminding me that this starts up again when we are well advanced in age sometimes – you get my point.
Another chapter could be competitive Sports, which, at some point, we just can’t do it anymore. This one is a particularly good example of chapters we could keep open but choose, instead, to close of our own accord and move on. In my case, marriage is a good example of this idea; I’m young enough to give it another go, but having lost everything but the shirt on my back twice, I have nothing left to prove, and that chapter has been closed, torn out of the book, and set on fire.
The point here, and why the lived life is so much better than a book and its bindings, is that we get to choose when chapters are closed and when they are kept open as a contingency for as-yet possibilities that we may not even be aware might be waiting for us down a road we haven’t yet traveled.
It’s the possibilities, and the hope that fuels the pursuit of them, that keep the chapters of our lives open until the very last minute.