If this were Ancient Greece, I would have died two years ago. Life expectancy was a lot different then than it is now. Now, I’m expected to live more than twice as long.
This fact comforts me, because at this point in my life I feel less sure about anything than I ever have before. People say to live every day as if it’s your last, but I tell you this: live each day as if it’s your first.
It’s not your first, you have already had years of life experience (I’m making assumptions here, but it’s unlikely that you’re able to read if you haven’t been alive for at least a year. I started reading at a remarkably early age, but it wasn’t less than twelve months, that’s for sure.) and a thought experiment won’t make you suddenly unlearn everything. But in the beginner’s mind there are many options and in the expert’s there are few. The tendency to template match becomes irresistible the more experience we have, and this is the result of evolutionary necessity.
Nothing I have ever done has ever killed me, and thus natural selection has cemented in my mind the demented conviction that everything I have done/thought/said has been right, at least from a strictly biological survival perspective. This is the foundation of all cognitive biases: thinking the way I think and doing the things I do have not resulted in my death, and as far as staying alive, I have succeeded.
Unfortunately, modern survival is not so simple. I am always thinking about threats to my comfort, safety, and existence, my world is fraught with peril, at least in my imagination. As humans, we have evolved beyond the need for mere subsistence living, and so I am constantly beset by the need for meaning in what I think and say and do. As a result of some peculiarities of my psyche, I am always coming up short in that department.
Ten years ago, I was madly in love, finishing college, and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, how to make it full of purpose and significant contributions to the world around me. Back then, I had a sense of what I wanted, I wanted to use my natural talents and developed skills to help people, to expand our collective knowledge of the world, and to spread love and gratitude wherever I could.
Now, I don’t know what I want and I don’t know how to find it. People tell me I should do what makes me happy, but I no longer have a clear sense of what that is. I want to help people, but I don’t know how, or I fail to recognize how I may already be helping people. Most of my time is spent worrying about how whatever I’m about to do may be ultimately meaningless, pointless, and utterly insignificant. When did significance become my primary preoccupation?
To date, I have never ridden on a sailboat, I have never fired a gun, I’ve never slept with someone on the same day that I met them, never slammed a sake bomb, never stepped foot in a foreign country, never told my grandparents that I loved them to their faces. I have convictions, but I’m losing sight of my grounding for them, and I don’t know how to face each day except to get up because my alarm went off, go to work so I don’t get fired, eat food so I don’t starve, and go to sleep so I can wake up again tomorrow without feeling like shit.
I have a compulsion about playing the worst-case scenario game. You know how to play, imagine the worst thing that could happen if you accept an invitation to go have drinks with your friends (or insert any other proposition) and then realize that things could be even worse than that. Repeat until you can’t think of anything worse and you definitely aren’t going out tonight.
I’m good at the worst-case scenario game, and I spent most of my life thinking it was a marker of my intelligence. My search for meaning and purpose felt the same way, I thought I was smart for always thinking there was a better thing I could be doing and a better way I could be doing it. Natural selection had confirmed that whatever I was doing/thinking/feeling was right because it had kept me alive all these years.
But it turns out, I’m not right. I’m wrong. The worst-case scenario game is just general anxiety disorder, and my intractable inability to find meaning is major depressive disorder.
I spent three years taking anti-depressant medication and talking with therapists, breaking down my thought process, breaking apart my mental games, and trying to learn coping strategies for surviving with these conditions. Not that they had killed me, of course, but they were certainly shortening my lifespan and depriving me of the joy of living.
I learned that I don’t have a spider sense like Peter Parker, I can’t inexplicably sense danger when it’s nearby, I’m just having anxiety attacks and they don’t correlate to anything except for a handful of identifiable PTSD-like triggers. I learned that I’m not smart for figuring out that life is meaningless because we will all eventually die (and our children, and our children’s children, and our whole planet,) that feeling of purposelessness is just a depressive episode.
Not to discount the real existential concerns about longevity and significance. Meaning matters, and it is is humankind’s woeful burden to be the only species aware of its own impending doom.
I would love to say that I no longer take medication nor sit on a therapist’s couch because I’m cured, I never get panic attacks and I never have depressive episodes, but that’s not the case.
I still have anxiety attacks, but I focus on my breathing, remind myself that everything is totally manageable, and try to let the worry subside. I still have depressive episodes, but I ride them out too, reminding myself that it’s just a feeling, another fleeting emotional state, and later I will feel better about the things that seem so pointless in the moment.
If I am a man in a boat on the sea, then anxiety is the crashing wave that rocks my vessel and threatens to throw me overboard. Depression is the deep dark sea beneath me, the drowning that awaits if I cannot reach the surface. Sometimes my life is an ocean storm, too choppy to keep my keel upright, too cloudy for me to see the stars that would let me navigate a clear route to safety. Other times, the sea is calm, the sky is clear, and the smooth glassy surface of the water looks like I could walk right across it to land.
As I think about the last thirty years of my life, I feel a great swell of gratitude for the experiences I have been lucky enough to have, for the people I have been lucky enough to meet, for those brief fleeting encounters with the divine that keep me full of wonder and optimism for the voyage ahead. I think about my heroes, of Odysseus, of Roland, of Jesus, of my mother and father, and it gives me strength to weather the storms. I have been well prepared by my predecessors to stay afloat, steer back on course, and walk on water by my faith alone if I have to.
Today is the first day of my life. Like any infant, I must learn to crawl before I can walk, and walk before I can run. But I will run. One of these mornings, I’m going to rise up singing and look to the clear sky of day as a warming light that will guide me into the promised land of purposeful, meaningful contribution to the world around me.
I don’t know what to do with myself, and I don’t know what makes me happy, but I have faith that I will learn what these things are as long as those are what I seek. I may be lost at sea, tossed about like Odysseus on his voyage home to Ithaca, but I will always turn my thoughts homeward. Maybe one day I will see how my anxiety and my depression are valuable tools that inspire the unique qualities of myself that will lead me to a life of meaning and purpose.
Today is my birthday, and it is a happy day.