In one of the most recent Brain Pickings issues (and now one of my all-time favorites), Maria examines (with the borrowed words of David Foster Wallace):
How to live life “on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
I could most definitely quote the entire article. Many of the commencement speech excerpts elicited thoughts about my attempts to live life on fire (circling back to Brain Pickings’s mission of making an ongoing inquiry into how to live and what it means to lead a good life).
After all of the tumultuous change that transpired during the past year of my life, I am still sinking deep within the theme of how to live life with bravery.
I have learned to ask myself often, “Am I doing what I love to do?” or “Is what I am doing bringing me closer to my dreams?”
Much of the time, I find myself quoting a “script” in my head when people ask me what I do for work. I feel burdened by some unspoken need to run through a list of my credentials and job history while defining my current “role” rather than just saying, “I’m pursuing my passions.”
Every day I recalibrate and try to do better at living with bravery and pushing what I thought were my limits, but I also remember to be kind to myself. While exercising, I remind myself that two years ago, I couldn’t even walk. When I run into frustrating issues at work, I remember that a year ago I was trapped in an office cube shuffling Powerpoint slides about oil and gas pipelines. When the weather doesn’t agree with me, I remember that I dreamed of living in this city for a decade.
On being limitless
We limit ourselves all the time. We create boxes, we set boundaries, and write ourselves into corners because we are terrified that if we approach something greater, that we will fail. What if, instead, we imagined immensities? What if, instead of scrambling to describe or articulate it all, we allow ourselves to feel it at its fullest? What if, instead of expecting failure as a result, we focus on the journey? As I mentioned in a recent post, we must face discomfort and allow ourselves to see beyond it. I let myself be lovesick. I let myself be homesick. I have been practicing not assigning meaning to it.
Millman argues, we meet “someone more courageous” than we are, a person who “didn’t determine what was impossible before it was possible,” and something in us is reawakened. (The very purpose of a commencement speaker, after all, is to be such an awakening example of that courageous someone, a preemptive living proof that there is hope for transcending those self-imposed limitations.) Turning to Robert Frost’s famous proclamation, Millman transmutes the secret of a great poem into the secret of a great life:
The grand scheme of a life — maybe, just maybe — is not about knowing or not knowing, choosing or not choosing. Perhaps what is truly known can’t be described or articulated by creativity or logic, science or art. Perhaps it can be expressed by the most authentic and meaningful combination of the two: poetry.
As Robert Frost once wrote, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.”
I recommend the following course of action for those, like you, who are just starting out, or who, like me, may be re-configuring midway through. Heed the words of Robert Frost. Start with a big fat lump in your throat. Start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, a crazy lovesickness, and run with it. If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love. And don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can. Imagine immensities. Don’t compromise and don’t waste time. In order to strive for a remarkable life, you have to decide that you want one. Start now. Not twenty years from now. Not thirty years from now. Not two weeks from now. Now.
On loving the process
Sometimes I’ll spend every evening by myself for an entire week or two at a time just reading, doing research for work, learning, or creating. I’ve learned how to turn off the eternal Rose-alarm that has gone off my entire life screaming that I should be out doing something social or fulfilling external obligation. Instead of perusing Facebook, I try to write instead. I am an avid procrastinator that has had to train myself to love the process.
Number One: Fall in love with the process and the results will follow. You’ve got to want to act more than you want to be an actor. You’ve got to want to do whatever you want to do more than you want to be whatever you want to be, want to write more than you want to be a writer, want to heal more than you want to be a doctor, want to teach more than you want to be a teacher, want to serve more than you want to be a politician. Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. The joy is in the journey.
Number Two: Very obvious: do your work. When faced with the terror of an opening night on Broadway, you can either dissolve in a puddle of fear or you can get yourself ready. Drown out your inevitable self-doubt with the work that needs to be done. Find joy in the process of preparation.
Number Three: Once you’re prepared, throw your preparation in the trash. The most interesting acting and the most interesting living in this world have the element of surprise and of genuine, honest discovery. Be open to that.
On kindness and changing the world
On top of that, I have gotten into the habit of asking others, “What can I do to help?” I try to tell friends that they can do what they’ve always wanted to do- I try to ask them to be brave, and go for it, and what can I do to help them make the jump? I’ve offered to write reviews, set up websites, make food, teach dance, teach how to set up Google Calendar, take photos, etc. All of my life I have placed importance on how I can have an impact on people, and I’ve recently attempted to be more direct about it.
I was on the subway one day and thought about the phrase, “I want to change the world.” So many of us think that it’s such a huge task that it is impossible. As I get older, I truly think that we can change the world even if it is just by helping or showing love to one person at a time. Even things as small as asking if you need me to get up to refill your water or wine glass, or get you your second beer, or put something away. When I visit overworked, exhausted coffee shop owners, I wordlessly go and find a cloth to help wipe down all the tables and put mugs away. Once, I simply asked an employee at an office supply store if he needed help with some boxes he was lifting. He looked at me incredulously and said, “I have worked here for 20 years, and you are the very first customer to ever offer to help.” The look in their eyes, it makes me feel like the world changed just a little bit from that tiny action.
While I may never be publicly recognized for what I’ve done or be published in a book or have a Wikipedia entry created about me, I think the little ripples of impact truly can help change the world. After all, isn’t kindness truly the greatest enlightenment?
Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word, or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers.
Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.
Instead of building ourselves into boxes, let’s climb into the sky.
Appropriately closing with poetry – let’s “wade mouth-deep into love./ We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.”