When I was little, I loved rolling down hills. It was thrilling and exciting to lie down at the top of an incline, make my body into a straight line, then bump bump bump bump flop flail boink my way down to the bottom in a mess of giggles, hair, and grass stains. I’d get to the bottom, run back to the top and start again. Lather, rinse, repeat until I’d made myself so sick, all I could do was lie on my back and watch the clouds until my stomach settled. It was good.
I don’t know what happens after we die. I know it’s comforting to believe that we’ll be reunited with loved ones. I know it is satisfying to believe that bad people will be punished. I know it is psychologically validating to believe that we are more than just the sum of our small lives, and that we will experience a More in the Great Beyond. We want to believe our lives mean something, and that we aren’t striving for nothing.
But there is honesty and there is peace in accepting that even if our lives don’t mean anything grander than a few score years of the digestive process, it is enough just to have been here, to have made a positive contribution–no matter how small, and to have loved.
Sienna Miller did an interview for Esquire, recently. It was an excellent interview in how candid it seemed to be, but what stuck with me was this exchange Miller had with the writer:
“Say I achieved everything I wanted to achieve in my career,” she said, “which is to be incredibly prolific and brilliant and moving and successful and to make art, and for people to be affected by it. So my daughter would be really proud of me and her daughter would be, like, ‘Granny made these films’. And her daughter would be like, ‘Oh, my great grandmother made these films I think’. And then her daughter would be, ‘I think three generations ago there was this woman and she was an actress’. And to her daughter I would be nothing.
“I don’t even know my great grandmother’s name,” she said, “let alone my great-great grandmother. I don’t know who she was. I don’t know what she did. And ultimately none of it fucking matters. And when you’re in some massive crisis and you look at yourself in a close-up and then if you visualise pulling back and seeing England and then pulling back and seeing the world, you realise how fucking insignificant you are. I think that’s really the greatest thing I’ve learned recently: that I don’t matter. Nothing matters. It’s such a relief to know that. I didn’t get that job – it doesn’t fucking matter. Whatever I achieve, or don’t, will be forgotten, it’s not important.”
Me: “What is important, then?”
Sienna: “Be kind, be good, be happy, be loving.”
Be kind. Be good. Be happy. Be loving.
Church taught me to keep my eye on the prize of a heavenly reward, and to strive toward the utopia of Heaven. I think, if that’s your belief, certainly you look forward to the reward of a race well run, but the race is where the work is done. The work is being kind, good, happy, and loving. Kindness is exhausting. Goodness can be excruciating. Being loving? Some days I would rather swim with sharks.
When I started to study my religion, I wondered why we spent so much time harping on the highlights. We celebrate the birth of a savior, and the death of a martyr, and the resurrection of a god. We preach about miracles, and signs, and wonders. We absolutely ignore the life lived in between all the made-for-tv excitement.
If you are a Christian, you believe that The Christ lived a sinless life. He was unfailingly kind. Unfailingly good. Unfailingly loving. And this is a man who was allegedly spat upon, scourged, defamed, bullied, abused, and neglected–come on, his parents lost him in a crowd and didn’t notice for days. In spite of all that, every Monday morning he got up and was kind, good, and loving.
It isn’t the birth, the death, or the resurrection that make any difference. It’s the kindness, goodness, and willingness to love that made the resurrection possible after the death, and validated the birth.
The older I get, the less I care about Heaven, or Hell. I’m not too worried about blessed assurances, or foretastes of glory divine. –because no one knows anything about what happens after death for a fact– –and not even religious scholars can agree upon whether, or not we are predestined for, unable to destroy, or are always on the verge of losing our salvations–
I worry about whether, or not I’ve put enough love into Thor that he can be strong enough to weather the bad days. I worry about whether, or not I am making choices that fortify, or corrupt my marriage. I worry about whether, or not I am making a positive contribution to the lives of people I see on a daily basis, or just in traffic. I worry about being kind, good, happy and loving.
Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians had a song, Little Miss S. The song tells the story of a young junkie living from fix, to party, to fix, and how empty her life is. For the chorus, Edie sings, “You’ve got a lot of living to do without life.”
I think about that line a lot when I hear about young people struggling with addiction, or who have made life altering choices. I think about that line when I think about my friends who have made the choice to stop living*.
Be kind. Be good. Be happy. Be loving.
Make it the kind of life you want to live, even when it is hard–because you can’t have the fun of rolling down the hill without the work of climbing to the top. And sometimes, you can’t even have the fun of rolling down the hill without wanting to be sick at the bottom. (And sometimes, you hit a rock on the way down–look out for rocks.)
Be kind to yourself. Be good to yourself. Be happy with yourself. Be loving to yourself.
*I want to acknowledge that Life and Medical Depression don’t mix well. I want to acknowledge that it isn’t just as easy as “making a decision to be happy” for some people. And, I want to acknowledge that sometimes facing the prospect of a joyless life makes no life at all look and feel like a very real relief.
Rick Warren’s son took his own life last year, at the age of 27. What Warren had to say about his son’s death was kind and loving, and understanding of how difficult it is to face another day when you struggle with depression and/or mental illness. I think it’s worth reading.
No words can express the anguished grief we feel right now. Our youngest son, Matthew, age 27, and a lifelong member of Saddleback, died today.
You who watched Matthew grow up knew he was an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man. He had a brilliant intellect and a gift for sensing who was most in pain or most uncomfortable in a room. He’d then make a bee-line to that person to engage and encourage them.
But only those closest knew that he struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.
Kay and I often marveled at his courage to keep moving in spite of relentless pain. I’ll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said “Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?” but he kept going for another decade.
He also acknowledged, ““If love could have kept my child alive, he’d be alive today, because he was incredibly loved.”
Be kind. Be good. Be gentle. Be loving.