[Originally posted on May 5, 2013]
Death does strange things to a person.
My father passed away right before the 4th of July in 2009. We were never close, but we didn’t have a strained relationship either. Years prior, I realized what our relationship was, and I was fine with that. Yet his death changed me. It came at a time when I was growing apathetic to my faith. It also came at a time when all of the walls I put up around me over the years left me with few people in my life. I had no problem moving on and not keeping in touch; it was easy.
After he died, I went through what Chris and I jokingly called “The Existential Crisis.” It was the first time in my life I really confronted the idea that when we die, That’s It. Prior to my father’s death, the thought would briefly enter my mind in the darkest part of night and I’d quickly push it out. Ain’t nobody got time for that shit. After he died, the idea consumed every “quiet” moment of my life. I’d lie in bed at night and look outside the window, nearly panicking at the prospect of ceasing to exist. I’d think about the science of it all; how my previous view of the afterlife made no sense, but I believed it like a kid believes in Santa Claus. If there was an afterlife, what would it be like, really? Would we just be this floating soul in the breeze, unable to touch velvet, hear Schumann, or watch the sun set ever again? Unable to interact with the world we’re trapped in? It all seemed so dismal to me, and yet it consumed me for months.
I wanted to fill my mind with other things, so I began doing little 30 day experimentations to challenge myself. One of them was as simple as watching no more than five hours of TV a week (basically, watching the Daily Show and Colbert, plus an hour for Sunday news shows). Another was using no electronics (TV, laptop, phone, etc) from 7:30pm until bedtime.
As I did these experiments, my previous decisions began to look different. I began to see the walls I put up around me as a faulty time capsule. Those imaginary walls were a way for me to act like I could preserve My World, protecting myself and everyone in it. Yeah, that doesn’t work. The walls now looked like a crutch and I began to desire to step out of that time capsule and enjoy the gifts of the Present. From this desire came the most important change in my life: The Reach Out Project.
Despite my social anxiety and natural tendency towards introversion, I decided that every day for 30 days, I was going to reach out to someone in my life. Whether it was emailing or calling an old friend, sending a meaningful message on Facebook to someone I didn’t normally chat with, asking a co-worker out to lunch, or inviting people over to the house, each day I had to do one thing to reach out to someone. See, part of what made those walls was my taking a passive approach to friendship. I assumed people didn’t ask me out to lunch, or didn’t email me because they didn’t like me or just didn’t have room in their life for me. Rather than my typical wallowing in self-pity/self-loathing, believing I was completely unlikeable, I instead gave a good, hearty, “oh what the fuck?”, threw caution to the wind and started reaching out to people.
I emailed, called and invited people to things and I accepted invitations to things – even things I didn’t want to do – with my heart open. Sure, I missed a couple days here and there, and sure, initially I still felt that nervousness and discomfort that accompanies my shyness and insecurity. But I persisted, and gradually I made new close friends and reconnected. I began to see that I had an incredible group of people around me. Inspiring, funny, quirky, caring…the people I allowed into my life lifted me out of my Existential Crisis (which is now in the current and likely permanent state of Existential Conundrum). Through them I realized that a lot of adults take a passive approach to friendship – we feel uncomfortable taking that initial step or we don’t allow ourselves to take the lead in setting things up with people. But someone’s got to do it – why not me? And why not you?
Fast forward a couple of years. This past March, a few of my friends put together a “Girls’ Night Sleepover” as a sendoff to me before I left for California. Girls’ Night was one of my later Reach Out ideas: once a month, invite the ladies in my life to a restaurant for a night of drinks, food and conversation. No boyfriends or husbands allowed (with the one-time exception of my friend Steven, who is the kind of friend you can count on when you need a chaperone and let’s face it – sometimes you do). For Girls’ Night Sleepover, my friend Jennie made a killer butternut squash risotto and we all brought wine and an insane amount of booze and snacks. Before we devoured the risotto, my friends toasted me. In summary, they thanked me for organizing things that brought people together – Girls’ night, Le Nom…and said Chris and I created quite the network of friends in our time in Arizona. I looked around the table and smiled at these wonderful people I was so grateful to have in my life. We proceeded to eat, drink and laugh so hard at each other’s stories our faces hurt. That’s what I live for.
I can point to the moment my Existential Crisis lifted. It was in a dream: I looked outside my bedroom window at night, watching helicopters flying overhead, shining spotlights on the ground in search of a Dangerous Man. I looked over to my pool and my heart stopped – the Dangerous Man was lying on one of my lounge chairs. Rather than retreat, I knew I had to talk to him. I walked through the wall and approached him. As I got closer, I saw that the Dangerous Man was an old man. He looked at me as if he knew what I was going to ask. I asked anyway.
“What happens when we die?”
“I know the answer, but I can’t tell you.”
“They’re looking for you…” I pointed to the helicopters.
We talked about death and the importance of living for the moment. I wasn’t afraid of the Dangerous Man. He got up and looked at the back wall of my property. “It’s time for me to go now.” As he walked towards the wall, I remembered the most important thing I wanted to know.
“Wait! I don’t know if there is a god or not. If I live my life the way I know in my heart I should live it, and it turns out there really is a god, does it matter if I have doubt?”
The man turned around and he was a beautiful young Spanish woman with long dark hair. She laughed as if my question had an obvious answer. “He won’t care.”
She hopped the wall, and I woke up. No, I don’t think it was God speaking to me. That doesn’t matter – what matters is the common sense presented in the dream: be the person you know you should be, surround yourself with goodness, and experience love wherever you can. Nothing else matters beyond that, does it?
Image courtesy of twobee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net