When we start to realize that we’re not going to be here forever, we become aware that it’s not clear what it meant to be here at all.
Right now, in this moment, I can articulate what matters in my life, which is why I try to write often, to capture a story that’s pivotal to my life. And while what’s pivotal now might not be when I’m older and have the time to reflect on my legacy, I’ll be capturing personal histories as they’re made, rather than conjuring them up from my fragile memory; I’ll be capturing the evolution of my self.
For awhile now (maybe a decade?), I’ve told myself I’m comfortable with the idea of death—either my consciousness will persist in some way and the unknown will present something amazing to my mind or my consciousness will cease to be and so will any experience of pain or happiness. “I” will or will not be. Being comfortable with that idea right now is fairly easy—I’ve a buffer zone—I’ve every expectation to live a long and healthy life; I’ve time to tell my stories.
Stories are an insurance against the possibility that “I” will not exist after death.
I know, now, that my grandmother was reviewing her life. The fixation and repetition and lack of urgency were just parts of the process. Those seemingly random memories meant something to her. She was collecting and assembling the stories that defined her, so she could leave them here for my family.
Kate Kiefer Lee, The Stories We Share
Sharing and reenforcing our stories with our family and friends ensures that we live on in their memories—we continue to influence how they think, feel, and act, and how they affect the lives of others.
During my 29 years, I’ve developed an understanding of the world that allows me to stand firmly, if not irrefutably, behind two ideas:
- I think therefore I am. (Thanks, Descartes).
- I am not responsible for the origination of the existence of my own thought.
Beyond that, how I choose to lead my life is based largely on the grace of my circumstances. Recognizing that those circumstances have provided me (what I consider to be) a fairly extraordinarily happy life, and valuing this above most else in life, and expecting that others also esteem happiness above most else, I try to lead my life in a way that helps people achieve happiness in their own lives and to also pay it forward.
Doing this isn’t easy. In fact, it’s probably the most difficult endeavor in life. This past weekend while eating breakfast at my friend’s cabin in Pennsylvania, I picked up a copy of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. In it, the narrator explains the protagonist’s genius capacity for feeling pain and self-loathing; raised by pious parents wishing to break his will, they beat down a child who was too hearty and strong of will, and taught him only to hate himself, although, he also had a strong capacity to love and care for others. Despite this, his self-loathing was just as alienating as a strong ego can be, and the narrator observed that before you can love others, you must love yourself.
Loving yourself, to me, means developing my ability to tell stories, but to also learn from them. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned during my time studying rhetoric and composition and working as a writer and editor, it’s that the best stories are told during the editing process. For me, editing is a dialogic process—it involves talking with your editor about what you really mean to convey; sometimes our words don’t do our ideas justice and talking about the ideas behind the words allows us to choose better words and constructions to more accurately convey those ideas to others. Likewise, sometimes we don’t fully understand the importance or implications of the stories we tell, and in telling them, our friends and family help us to read between the lines, to see what we didn’t see before, and have the opportunity to re-imagine the arch of our grand narrative, to use the time we have to proactively consider our legacy, and not wait until it’s too late to leave the mark on the world that we wish to leave.