|William Blake Ancient of Days|
The other day a friend said to me, "I want to kill myself because I have wasted my life."
I was pissed off. I was pissed off because I want to kill MYSELF because I have wasted MY life. And my friend stole my complaint! Bastard.
And this friend doesn't deserve my complaint at all. Check this out: my suicidal friend
Owns a home in a desirable neighborhood
Has a spouse, kids, siblings, parents, cousins, nieces, nephews, all of whom said friend sees regularly in social settings
Earns a six figure income
Owns lots of vehicles
Has a tv, pets, swimming facilities, etc.
Compare this to me. I'm alone. I live paycheck to paycheck. Professional failure.
Which one of us has EARNED the "I have wasted my life and I want to kill myself" whine?
But here's the thing.
All right, here it gets tricky, and I want you to stay with me.
I want to use a big word, an abstract concept: teleology.
Teleology: the study of endings.
Let's break it down. "Telos" is the Greek word for "end." But it also means "purpose."
Logy: study of.
Let me take it from abstract to concrete: two times in my life when I felt I was at some kind of an end, and when I studied my life.
It's around eight a.m. local time, Bloomington, Indiana, September 11, 2001. I'm seated at a computer. The computer sits on a desk overlooking a half acre backyard, an oak tree, a train track. I'm working on what will become the book "Bieganski." I take a break, and turn on NPR. Bob Edwards is informing us that two planes have hit the World Trade Center. I immediately understand what this means – at a previous job, on another campus, I worked with a group of very outspoken young, Arab Muslim men and – and I know exactly what "two planes have hit the World Trade Center towers" means.
I do what a lot of people did on that morning. I reflect on my life.
I had always wanted to travel, especially since two of my brothers, Phil Goska and Mike Goska, died young and never got to travel. I reflected on the fact that I'd lived and worked in Asia, Africa, and Europe. I felt grateful and satisfied that I had traveled.
I had always wanted to write and publish, and I had. I felt grateful and satisfied.
I had always wanted to learn, and I was about to finish a PhD. Again, I felt grateful and satisfied.
I had always wanted to be of service. I thought about my years working as a nurse's aide, a Peace Corps Volunteer, and an inner city teacher. I felt grateful and satisfied.
True, I had not yet met Mr Right. I never married or had kids. But hope springs eternal, and I thought, someday, that will happen. I was not as young as I once was, but I still had plenty of time. My biological clock had not yet struck midnight.
And I concluded, on that morning of September 11, 2001: the dirtbags could fly their airplane into this house right now, and I would die without regret.
Fast forward to 2012. A doctor has just phoned to inform me that I have cancer. The lab is reporting that it's a particularly deadly form. The only hope I am given is chance.
On that day of reflection, I thought: I've completely wasted my life, and I will die with nothing but regret.
What changed between 2001 and 2012?
I finished my PhD, went on the job market, and could not land a tenure-track job. I had spent the previous ten years not having any fun at all, not socializing, not doing much of anything I enjoy. I had spent ten years applying for jobs, and being rejected for jobs, and living on nothing in a slum.
I tried to publish "Bieganski," and publishers always liked it at first, promised publication and success, got a sense of how controversial it would be, and backed out. Finally, a very brave publisher took it on, only for it not to sell well at all. Also, "Save Send Delete" was never advertised by the publisher, and it, too, has sold very few copies.
I never did meet Mr. Right, and I never had those kids I dreamed of being a mom to. I never moved into that home I'd been decorating inside my head for as long as I could remember.
No tenure-track job – all those hundreds of hours spent in graduate classrooms, breathing fusty air and putting up with gasbag professors and sycophantic, trendite graduate students – wasted.
Few readers – all those hundreds of hours spent honing my writing – wasted.
Alone – all those dreams, all that hoping, all that money spent on mascara and pantyhose and just the right dress, my heart beating fast, gazing at my young face in the bathroom mirror, wishing as hard as I could that I could be pretty – wasted.
My twenties, spent living all over the world, when I should have been making the RIGHT career choices, and realizing I'd never snag a man and adopting or going to a sperm bank and having a kid on my own – wasted.
That's a real world definition of teleology. At one point in my life, September 11 2001, I looked back at my life and it seemed pretty good. At another point, 2012, I looked back at my life and it struck me then (and still strikes me now, truth to tell) as a gigantic wasteland, enough to excuse suicide. What's the difference? The telos, the end. It's the same life, the same plot. In one version, I assess the life very differently, because of what looks like the last page.
Back to my friend. I look at my friend's life and I see the house, the kids, the extended family, the pets, the swimming, the money, the vehicles, and I can't imagine how or why anyone would assess that as a wasted life. My friend looks at me and sees publications and travel and freedom and education and can't imagine how I would assess my own life as wasted.
See? It really is a matter of perspective.
The economy sucks right now. I have Facebook friends who are looking for work, and not finding it. And, here's the thing. The BEST people are having the hardest time.
I know a couple of very successful people through Facebook. They really are just two people. One male, one female. And they are both 14 carat phonies. They aren't my Facebook friends. I come across their posts on others' threads.
These two people are loud – they post a lot, in ways guaranteed to get attention. They publicly stroke themselves, talking about how successful, kind, praised, loved, they are. A sentence as obvious as "I am so fabulous" is not beyond either one of their senses of shame. They say it without any irony.
You could grab a bunch of pop ideas from New Age pitchmen and the most conventional talking heads on MSNBC and four pounds of white Domino sugar and a couple of pinches of meth and run them around a Cuisinart and spew them out and you'd get an accurate simulacrum of their posts. And these two non-entities have thousands of Facebook friends and accolades and publications and photos of themselves with movers and shakers, their best-friends-forever.
Mediocrity often exceeds anyone's wildest dreams.
Genuine humanity often struggles.
Not always. But sometimes.
I want so badly to say to my struggling Facebook friends, people struggling because they are genuine and unique and the economy sucks: Okay, you want to kill yourself because you have wasted your life.
Please understand that that is Satan talking.
Yes, yes, Satan with a capital S. (Satan is even a harder word to use than teleology.)
Please understand that it is all about perspective. Teleology.
Please understand that the demonic perspective you have now is telling you that your life sucks.
Remember teleology. At another point, you will come to another ending, another telos, than that which you have reached today. You will have another perspective, and you will realize that this all means something more than you can now know.
How do I know? Not just because of these two moments: the September 11 moment when my life seemed good, and the 2012 moment when the same life seemed like a total waste.
We also know because of those who have had Near Death Experiences.
There are a handful of themes that come up again and again in Near Death Experience accounts. By now the basics are familiar: a dying person rises up out of his or her dying body, sees a tunnel, a bright light, and departed relatives. That dying person is told, "It's not your time yet" and returns to his or her body.
The people who have had this experience report something else, too. They report that what we often assess as marks of success ultimately mean nothing. The million dollar deal, the Academy Award, aren't really the big things. What are the big things? The day you were kind to someone. The day you urged someone on. The day your experience had a positive impact on someone else's spiritual journey.
One Near Death Experiencer, Betty Jean Eadie, was shown a homeless, drunken bum lying in the street. Eadie's spiritual guides told her how valuable this man's life was. We would assess this man as a wasted life. Not so, the spiritual guides taught Eadie. In fact this man was a great teacher to a highly successful attorney who lived near the homeless drunken bum. The attorney was learning about others' needs by passing this bum on the street. The attorney would be inspired to do good things.
I know from experience that we can touch others without realizing it. I walk everywhere. To me, walking is the simplest thing in the world. I don't think about it at all. In fact I walk so much that I often am not even aware of my walk when I arrive somewhere. More times than I can count, complete strangers have approached me in public – on the street, in supermarkets. They have a look of awe in their eyes, an awed look that strikes me as utterly inappropriate for any contact with me. They say, "Excuse me, but I see you walking," and then they name places where they have seen me. "I see you walk in the sun, rain and snow. It inspires me. I show you to my kids. Thank you."
I'll be honest – I don't understand this reaction at all. But it has happened so many times I can't question it.
A wasted life? When Satan talks that way to you, he is, as ever, lying. Your life is not wasted. Give it time. You will reach another telos. You will have another perspective. And you will see.
Don't give up.