Copyright ©2013 by Anne Lamott
It can be too sad here. We so often lose our way. It is easy to sense and embrace meaning when life is on track. When there is a feeling of fullness—having love, goodness, family, work, maybe God as parts of life—it’s easier to navigate around the sadness that you inevitably stumble across. Life holds beauty, magic and anguish. Sometimes sorrow is unavoidable, even when your kids are little, when the marvels of your children, and your parental amazement, are all the meaning you need to sustain you, or when you have landed the job and salary for which you’ve always longed,
or the mate. And then the phone rings, the mail comes, or you turn on the TV.
Where do we even begin in the presence of horror or evil or catastrophe—dead or deeply lost children, a young wife’s melanoma, polar bears floating out to sea on scraps of ice? Where is meaning when we experience the vortex of interminable depression or, conversely, when we recognize that time is tearing past us like giddy greyhounds? It’s frightening and disorienting that time skates by so fast, but then, it’s not as bad as being embedded in the quicksand of loss.
One rarely knows where to begin the search for enduring significance, though by necessity, we can only start where we are.
That would be fine, when where we find ourselves turns out to be bearable. What about when it isn’t—after 9/11, for instance, or a suicide in the family?
I really don’t have a clue.
I do know it somehow has to do with sticking together as we try to make sense of chaos, and that seems a way to begin. We could start with something relatively easy: C. S. Lewis famously said about forgiveness, “If we really want to learn to how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.”
Maybe, counterintuitively, it makes sense to start right off with hard, rather than easy: Where is life’s meaning after Katrina, or an unwanted divorce?
If we’re pressed for an answer, most of us would say that most of the time we find plenty of meaning in life as it unfurls in front of us like a carpet runner—at least when it goes as expected, day by day, with our families and a few close friends. We have our jobs and those we work or play or worship or recover with as we try to feel a deeper sense of immediacy or spirit or playfulness. Most people in the world are striving simply to feed their kids and hang on. We try to help where we can, and try to survive our own trials and stresses, illnesses and elections. We work really hard at not being driven crazy by noise and speed and extremely annoying people, whose names we are too polite to mention. We try not to be tripped up by major global sadness, difficulties in our families or the death of old pets.
People like to say that it—significance, import— is all about the family. But lots of people do not have rich networks of hilarious uncles and adorable cousins, who all live nearby, to help them. Many people have truly awful families: insane, abusive, repressive. So we work hard, we enjoy life as we can, we endure. We try to help ourselves and one another. We try to be more present and less petty. Some days go better than others. We look for solace in nature and art and maybe, if we are lucky, the quiet satisfaction of our homes.
Is solace meaning? I don’t know. But it’s pretty close.
The kids say, “It is what it is.” They can say this with a straight face since they have not had kids yet. I remember my youth, and having that same great confidence in bumper stickers and my own thinking. Say it’s true: It is what it is. We’re social, tribal, musical animals, walking percussion instruments. Most of us do the best we can. We show up. We strive for gratitude, and try not to be such babies.
And then there’s a mass shooting, a nuclear plant melts down, just as a niece is born, or as you find love. The world is coming to an end. I hate that. In environmental ways, it’s true, and in existential ways, it has been since the day each of us was born.
It’s pretty easy to think you know the meaning of life when your children are small, if they come with all their parts and you get to live in that amazing cocoon of oneness and baby smells. But what if your perfect child becomes sick, obese, an addict or a homeless adult? What if you wake up at sixty and realize that you forgot to wake up, and you never became the person you were born to be, and now your hair is falling out?
You’re thinking about this for the first time when maybe it’s a little late. Your life is two-thirds over, or you’re still relatively young, but your girl went from being two years old to being eleven in what felt like eighteen months, and then in what felt like eight weeks to fifteen, where she has been now, sharply dressed as a bitter young stripper, for as long as you can fricking remember.
Oh, honey, buckle up. It gets worse.
Where is meaning in the meteoric passage of time, the speed in which our lives are spent? Where is meaning in the pits? In the suffering? I think these questions are worth asking.