“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
— The character Lord Darlington in Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play, Lady Windermere’s Fan.
This week I went under the knife…
I had yet another (and hopefully final ) surgery to repair the retina in my right eye.
This year has been a crazy rollercoaster ride of navigating through some difficult moments I never could’ve seen coming. Not only in my own life but also in witnessing many people I care about struggle and go through tough times.
But that’s the nature of life, isn’t it?
Isn’t that just the universe’s “funny” way of waking us up to the true nature of our existence… and reminding us of what really matters?
The more I’m alive, the more I see that a big part of human life is about becoming intimate with duality:
And just like we can’t experience and fully know what the light is without experiencing and fully knowing what darkness is, we can’t experience and understand the “highs” without experiencing and understanding the “lows.” And vice-versa.
In-between all those soaring highs and crashing lows remain the truth and enormity of “what is.” And that’s a full life. A complete existence that we are oblivious to at times because we’re stuck identifying with those few select extreme moments of either complete triumph or utter despair.
When life renders you dizzy from its constant ups and downs, we find an appreciation for simplicity. It moves you into the ideal human state: being happy just to be alive. Period! It’s just being without “being someone.” It’s experiencing life just as it is—letting life flow through you, as Roger Keyes wrote in his poem, ‘Hokusai Says.’
So while this year challenged me greatly, I also found that surrounded by these struggles were some of the greatest moments of peace, well-being, and clarity. Not from doing anything grand or accomplishing anything extraordinary, but rather in the simplicity of living a life: floating through states of being that pinch and jolt the very core of my being, reminding me of how good it feels to be alive and kicking.
These are like a gentle whisper in the ear, a kiss on the forehead, or a scrape of the knee that shines your light of awareness on how much you truly love life.
For me, this awareness has come from enjoying a fun Saturday night out on the town with my wife, drinking a wee bit too much tequila, uncontrollably laughing on the Uber ride home, experiencing the passion and pleasure of making love, and then afterward eating cupcakes on the couch.
Some days, it could just be chasing my dog Jackson around the house, taking him for a walk around my neighborhood, or getting together with friends and family and becoming engrossed in an incredible conversation.
Hell, sometimes the privilege and satisfaction of eating a delicious meal are enough to make me drop to my knees in gratitude. And what makes your insides scream “I love my fucking life” more than the sound of music taking over your mind, heart, and soul.
Seeing the stars twinkle, fawning at the impressiveness of the moon, or just being in nature can transform even the most chaotic days into a thing of beauty.
Lately, I have been strangely fascinated by the fact that I have a body… and I can move it. A while ago, I sprained my lower back and was out of commission for a few weeks. Once I started to heal, the joy of stretching and being able to touch my feet felt like I received a gift that I mistakenly believed I was entitled to for way too long.
Even during the worst moments throughout the fiasco with my eye, I can recall experiencing that pinch by the love of life. One day on the way back from a doctor’s appointment, feeling frightened and anxious, the song “You Won’t Break My Soul” by Beyonce came on the radio. My wife, in true fashion, turned up the volume and went to town. I became enamored by the bounce of her hair, the smile on her face, and how soothing her voice sounded. At one point, she turned to me, grabbed my hand, and said: “I know you are scared hunny, but you can’t let it break your soul.”
I’m sure you can compile your own list of what reminds you how much you love life. Deep down we all have a zest and love for life. Even when it feels like we are drowning in darkness, we yearn to experience and express this love and light that burns within.
In his famous childhood “sack of potatoes story,” Psychologist Carl Rogers asserts that all living things have an undeniable zest to gravitate towards more life despite how unfavorable their current situation might be. In talking about a sack of potatoes stored in his dark, dreary basement away from the sunlight, Rogers writes:
“Under the most adverse circumstances, they were striving to become. Life would not give up, even if it could not flourish.”
Yes, even a potato craves life and is seeking to become more.
Right now, there is a love in your heart so profound… so powerful… it is hungry to burst through the screen you are reading this on. Your love of life and desire for more life can shatter more than just this puny manufactured glass, my friend.
This pronounced innate love of life is probably best described by the Latin phrase: “Amor fati,” which translates to: “love of one’s fate.”
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche deemed this idea to be one of the highest levels of human existence in which someone embraces every single aspect of their life with a profound sense of love no matter what shows up.
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”
The phrase is also found elsewhere in Nietzsche’s writings and was a central theme to his general philosophy of life:
“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”
You might think I’m naive or out of touch with the realness of pain and depravity existing within the human condition. But whether it’s tiny moments of joy watching someone you love sing along to a song, stories like Carl Rogers and his potatoes, or ideas like “Amor Fati,” they all capture the essence of what connects us with everything real and precious residing in plain sight all around us, all the time. They are the parts of human existence that remind us we belong to something greater and more meaningful beyond what our tiny minds can comprehend—especially on the days when there are too many reasons to count why the world around us seems fucked.
Also, it’s not the point of this essay to say that we shouldn’t get angry or depressed by all the bad shit happening in the world and in our own lives. I’m not telling you to smile and scream, “I love my fucking life” in the face of loss and pain. Or that your hardships don’t matter. On the contrary, they matter a ton.
And that’s the point: Whether we can see it at certain moments or not, life is always beautiful. Even suffering and loss are relevant. They give substance to your life and add to its beauty.
But don’t get “beautiful” twisted. Beautiful doesn’t mean sparkly and flawless. Instead, “beautiful” comes down to what is meaningful. Beauty is insightful. And a beautiful life is thoughtful and layered with every color of the rainbow and every shade of gray but never carries on without spots in complete darkness.
So if you need to cry, then cry, my friend. If you need to crawl into a hole, then curl yourself up into a ball. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay knotted up and mangled forever. It doesn’t mean you should turn your loving heart cold against life.
Like Nietzsche says, indeed, on some days, we desire only to say YES to life. For me, today is one of those days, as evidenced by this essay. Tomorrow might be a different story. I might write something in a fit of rage. I might complain of a toothache. I might snap at my wife.
Or worse, I can find out I need yet another eye surgery.
But whatever comes, I will make damn sure it doesn’t break my soul.
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