Stories from a Dying Man
Like you, I’m dying, but hopefully not anytime soon. There was the stroke, and that almost killed me, but I didn’t die. I’ll die later. We’ll all die later. Knowing when you’re going to die is pretty powerful; most of us live nervously wondering. It would be nice to be able to plan. People seem to get exceptionally wise and productive when they learn they have a year to live. I’d like to be that wise and productive without having to get that news. But barring having an expiration date, you just need to hedge: somewhere between a morbid obsession and benignly pretending we are immortal.
Pretending the end is coming up, and exploring how I might be wise and productive, I started to mull through my life. It certainly seems like an endless array of dark moments that might lead one to get pretty depressed: failed ventures, ended marriage, a stroke, the apartment burning down, earthquakes and tornados … it’s enough to sour the whole experience. And while those sound like dramatic events, and they were, I’m okay with them. It’s not that they happened, it’s just how I choose to think of them.
My life, in life… things happen, some lousy and some great. It goes up and down. There are obstacles, and when they’re overcome, there is joy. Add to that that human memory is selective, we get to decide what is imbued with meaning and power by carrying it along. I realized it’s just like in photography, where you can compose beautiful photos anywhere, anytime, you don’t need some amazing external event to be able to do that, it’s the same in your personal story — it doesn’t have to be about scaling Everest or meeting the Pope to be powerful or interesting. Susan Sontag pointed out that a beautiful photo isn’t necessarily a photo of a beautiful thing; I’d extend that: a wonderful life isn’t necessarily a life filled with wonderful events.
It becomes important by how you chose to remember it, how you hold it, tweak it, how you connect the random dots of your life into an arc of meaning. You’re not making it false: you’re deciding how you want to frame it. Again, just like photography. Weston called photography a “willful distortion of fact,” and so are the stories of your life — you’re making your mythology, your creation story, your heroic journeys of discovery. They can be about shitty events or fun ones. It doesn’t matter at all. They are you, and still, you become them.
Silver lining: the lousy experiences make for far better stories.
In an odd coincidence as I was writing this tonight I heard the following bit on a Netflix show about Nietzsche. People often connect Danny’s Groundhog Day story with Nietzsche’s ideas of eternal recurrence, and I had heard about it, but never heard it framed quite like this:
So whenever I experience something horrible, there’s a sort of pleasant detachment, it’s just another crazy moment of my life and it’s great to have crazy moments to live through. They make me unique. People use the expression “at least it will make a good story,” to respond to your painful experiences. That’s only true if you weave it into a story; and after decades of life’s twists and turns, I decided it was time to own mine. I started writing them down (this is the productive part). Writing your story is kinda the same as re-living your experiences over and over, and not just accepting them all, but loving them.
All my stories here, my morning stories, are the stories I’ve been telling to myself, and to friends at parties, for years, when someone says “have you ever seen an eclipse?” or “what was it like to have a stroke?”
I call them “morning stories” because I go to bed thinking about something and I can’t fall asleep, so I stay up for a few hours and write it down. When I wake up again, I edit it briefly and post it here on Medium in the morning, and I feel purged and can go about my day. This is how you build your mythology, you tell your stories.
They say that the winners write the history, but I actually think of it the other way: the writers of the history are the winners. We’re all dying; the winners are the ones not who live longer, but those that build a mythology for themselves that embrace both the good and the bad, and find joy in it all.