We’re all conflicted sometimes. We find ourselves at a crossroads, looking one way, then the other, trying to see down the road to where it goes and what’ll happen to us along the way. Each has its virtues, each its shortcomings. The tradeoffs can be murky. Or not. Sometimes it’s a matter of what to prioritize. Career or family? Passion or stability? Travel or save your money? The right answer depends on so many factors it can feel impossible to game them out clearly enough to pick. The one thing you can be sure of is you can’t have it all. You have to choose.
For some of us – and I count myself as such a person – it can be paralysing, and we get stuck in a loop, hemming and hawing and unable to commit until outside forces make the decision for us. It’s a relief, in a way, since we’re absolved of the emotional consequences of making a hard decision. But there’s always ‘What if..?” The what-ifs will dog you, never leave you in peace.
So how does a person make hard decisions? It’s a question each person must answer themselves. Different people will have different answers, but here’s mine:
I imagine myself on my deathbed. The end is nigh. There’s no more time, no chance to change what’s come before. It is, as they say, all over but the crying.
What would I wish I had done?
Nine times out of ten, the answer becomes clear immediately.
No one likes to think about death, especially their own. I get it. It’s scary. And whatever you think comes after, whether it’s heaven or reincarnation or just… nothing, there’s little question that death is the end of the story of your life.
But in the face of death, life clarifies. The jumble of conflicting priorities pulling you this way and that gets a lot simpler. What matters, what really matters, jumps to the forefront of your consciousness, shining and obvious, and the provisional and secondary drops away. It isn’t gone, but its volume is reduced, its relative importance put into perspective. Decisions become much easier.
I first came to this realization decades ago, as a college student. But it wasn’t until my mother died eight years ago that it really hit home. I mourned my own loss, of course. But what broke my heart hardest was knowing that she had died without ever really being happy. Maybe happy isn’t the word I’m looking for, since we most all of us are afforded some happy moments in life. Maybe the word I’m looking for is content.
See, my mother always did what was expected of her. She got married, had a kid, worked hard, saved her money. All the things society says lead to a full and happy life. But she was always nagged by the feeling that she was missing something, and all the hoops she jumped dutifully through did not deliver the promised reward. She wasn’t bitter about it – well, sometimes, sure – but there was a kind of sadness in her, as if the life she lived and the choices she made were those expected of her, and not what she might have chosen for herself. Indeed, I don’t know if she ever knew what her true self might have chosen, because the weight of expectation life put on her gave her little chance to explore who that was. The best I ever heard her explain it was she felt like she was an artist who never found her medium.
That, more than anything – even my own loss – broke my heart when she died. All her chances were used up. There was no time left to turn things around, to find the medium that would let her true self express, to live a life worth dying for.
And of all the lessons her passing taught me, that’s the one that stuck firmest in my consciousness. That only when confronted with death do we know what is most valuable in life.
And so, to this day and til my last, that’s what I think of when I decide what to do, what choice to make, how to live my life. When I am on my deathbed, and there is no more time, what would I wish I had done?
I read a lot of great books, is the short answer.
So, a few days ago writer K Tempest Bradford published this article, in which she challenged readers to stop reading white, straight, cisgendered male authors for one year. Sadly (and predictably), certain corners of the internet exploded in rage at the notion (she has assembled a lovely collection of rage-tweets here, if you enjoy that sort of thing). I won’t reprise their objections, which savvy interneteers will likely be able to intuit themselves, nor pass judgement on any validity those objections may or may not have. But it so happens that I recently spent the better part of a year doing something very similar to Ms Bradford’s challenge. From roughly November 2013 until late last year, I read only books by women(*), many of them women of color, others not cisgendered (two of the new favorite writers whose work I discovered are married).
I did so for my own reasons, both personal and (for lack of a better term) professional. On a personal level it was simply the realization that the vast majority of the books on my overstuffed shelves were by men. I fought it for a long time, that realization. I mean, these were great books, each easily defensible on the merits. I have, if I may say, damned fine taste in literature, and reading material in general. Ask any of my friends. I’ve been an obsessive reader since kindergarten, the kind of person who never goes anywhere without a book and hasn’t since he could carry one. But looked at en masse, the unconscious bias in my collection was (and is) painfully clear (in my defense, I actually am a cisgendered white male).
When I was younger, the notion of placing any kind of limitation on my reading material for a whole year would have seemed preposterous. Now comfortably ensconced in middle age, it didn’t seem like that big a deal. It wasn’t like I was going to run out of good books to read, and while it might mean holding off on some things in my to-be-read stack, it’s hardly without precedent for a book to be in that stack for years before I get around to reading it. Really all I had to do was rearrange the order, though of course I used it as an excuse to go book-shopping, which is one of my favorite things to do.
The timing that November seemed propitious. I’d started writing Continue reading