I realize that some of my essays have gotten pretty grim as of late. My parents, who occasionally read my blog, are probably terrified to see me exploring such difficult themes. But what—as I increasingly find myself asking—am I supposed to write about, if not cancer and the destabilizing effect it has on one’s life? Trust me, I would rather be writing about anything but cancer. However, this is the direction my life took, and whether I like it or not, I’m here to experience it.
As many people are rediscovering this year, you don’t always get to choose your life’s trajectory. More often than not, you have little say in what goes on at all. The starting point, the direction, the angle and velocity… They’re not yours to decide. Only what you do in response, flapping your wings, like a flightless bird desperately trying to steer yourself toward where you want to land. Or at least—at the very least—away from that fast approaching pit of bubbling lava.
How fitting that it was me, with my talk of the power of a positive mindset, with my Stoic thinking, myriad productivity systems, and all that being-the-best-version-of-yourself nonsense, how fitting that I got handed the cancer of the person I love the most. It couldn’t even be my cancer, for fuck’s sake. No, it had to be my wife’s.
My cancer, I could live with, figuratively speaking. Maybe it would help me peel away all the pretense and posturing, push me to be the man I ought to be. Maybe I would read more, write more, get out more, and be more. Perhaps then, others would waste their time thinking about how to take away my pain, and I would be free.
But, as I often tell my writers, you have to work with what you have. You cannot wish yourself to have been born to different times, a different family, education, or background. These things are not up to you. So, like a professional photographer arriving at the shoot, you work with what you have. The time of day, the light conditions, the subject, your own mood, and the headache that’s been bothering you since yesterday. You get only one chance to capture that moment.
In my case, I could pretend that this isn’t happening, pumping out fake upbeat articles about life or the craft of writing, but that goes against everything I try to teach my writers about trying to capture their experience of the human condition. So I do my best, and like a diligent little writer, I study and chronicle this current experience; what I see, think, and feel, because this—especially amid the pandemic—is my life right now.
Some people work hard to fit in, to look good in front of others, and in their effort, they skip the uncomfortable part of truth, pretend that things don’t affect them as much as they do, and find shelter in imitating detached objectivity.
But there never is an objective viewpoint. An observer disconnected from reality doesn’t exist, not even in fundamental physics. To observe reality is to collapse it into your own rendition of it, a version only you get to experience. If physics cannot claim objectivity, why should a person even try?
I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere about how all that everyone has to work with is their true self. You can pretend to be someone you’re not, but then you’re only wasting precious energy maintaining the illusion. I’m finding more and more that our role in life—and art as well—is not to distance ourselves from the story we tell, but to be a part of it.
The things that you are, your birthplace, your family, the way you were brought up, the friends and enemies you made along the way, your travels, all your cool adventures, and the events you wish never to have happened, these all make up the rich tapestry that is you. Embrace it because it’s everything you have.
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