Screw the Boxes

A delayed post due to traveling to Australia. Here it goes:

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“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.” -Gilda Radner

We humans are somehow conditioned to expect our lives to be tidy and easily organized into compartmentalized, linear boxes that we can check off as we go through each one. When do we learn to do this?

There is an unspoken expectation about the direction of the flow in how we live. Who decided it?

We are programmed to hurriedly check off each box, lest we not keep up with this flow. Why does it matter?

When life inevitably becomes unruly and messy, when things do not go as we planned, and when we find ourselves in situations where our circumstances and outcomes do not fit neatly into those damned boxes, we are pained by the belief that we were somehow less than we should have been. We couldn’t keep up with the flow, therefore we must be bad and we must accept the finality of a wreckage.

We assume acceptance is our only choice. Somehow we deserved it–this fate of broken hopelessness.

Here’s the thing: our sense of failure was flawed at the inception of the very first belief that we could ever keep up with the flow. We were never completely in control.

I’m not talking in a religious sense.

We live in a world that is constantly changing, and impermanence is not negotiable. It can’t be stopped, and in that way perhaps there is flow. Forward-movement. An attempt to swim upstream will exhaust you and likely result in the inevitability of getting pulled into the water.

Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I was an avid soap opera fan. (It explains a lot, I know, I know.) Days of Our Lives was my favorite, and I never forgot their trademark intro, which I recently heard again on the last day of school when I got my nails done and it played in the salon:

“Like sands through an hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” (Said in Dr. Horton’s voice, original generation soap opera star, RIP. It’s a little embarrassing that I know that haha.)

We can’t stop the sand from emptying into the bottom of the hourglass, just like we can’t stop time from passing. The sun rises and sets and we get older and wizened, and there is not a single thing we can do to make it stop, no matter how much time and money we spend fretting about the ways we think will slow it down.

Nothing is guaranteed to us.

It is miraculous that we are even here, really. When you pause to ponder your existence and think about how much struggle it took for anything to live, if you’ve ever gone through the experience of creating new life, if you’ve ever thought about the chances for a seed to germinate and grow into a healthy and strong tree when most don’t survive and then think about all of the ways it could end in a single moment–you realize how much chance and good fortune it takes for life to exist.

And we have no idea how long we have to continue living.

Gilda Radner talked about the “delicious ambiguity.” She had been battling the cancer that eventually killed her. A diagnosis with days and months laid out in front of us reduces ambiguity. Old age also sharpens our perspective about time and makes living less ambiguous. But for the rest of us who lack the hard estimate or perspective, we often fall into the trap of thinking that we have all the time left in the world. We don’t have a sense of urgency about the way that we live. We forget that it can all be over tomorrow.

The trick, I think, is to remember impermanence. We are like beautiful and intricately shaped sand castles made with the most precise details and grandeur, only to be washed away and flattened back into the shoreline by a tide that none of us can control.

Maybe we invented the compartmentalized, linear boxes to check off and the urgency of the flow and order and direction and rules as a way to cope with the underlying sadness of nothing lasting forever.

But did we realize these rules would only make us sadder?

Did anyone ever think that the flow and rules and preconceived ideas about what should happen next only served to set us up for failure?

Our paths will not be linear. They will sometimes be ugly and sometimes give us inexplicable joy and the rest of the time will fall somewhere in between. If we can remember that the only flow we have to answer to is the forward march of our impermanence–if we can remember to be mindful– then we can savor the opportunity to be alive. Right now. In this moment. We can be able to access the deep recesses of our souls to find our personal truths about what fuels our passion and excitement about living. Our mindfulness will help us nurture the parts of ourselves that we know are important, and we can be reminded to let go of what inhibits us.

This mindfulness is what makes us resilient.

Our resilience is what helps us cope with ambiguity–that feeling of not knowing what will happen next–and we can transform it from something painful and feared into Gilda’s idea of “delicious ambiguity.” We don’t have to be terrified of the things we can’t control.

Our resilience is what helps us get through the inevitable rough parts of being alive. The rough times–those waves that knock us down and flatten our sand castles–are normal and expected. They don’t make us less than; we aren’t failures because of our brokenness. We can learn to swim and find ways to avoid drowning. We can always build more sand castles. But we can’t stop the waves from crashing–the same waves that will take us back to the ground that gave rise to our existence.

The wreckage is not who we are. It does not define us. What matters is what we did with our brokenness. Did we stay curled up amongst the shards of our pain, or did we reconfigure those pieces into something bigger and better, something that brought more goodness into the world?

I love Gilda’s quote. As she faced death, she realized there was never a perfect ending or a “right” way to live. There was never anything linear about life. The direction of the flow was a generalization, probably even a myth we were fooled into blindly accepting. Gilda realized she never knew for sure what would happen next–she never did–and she chose to embrace this not knowing as a way to make the most out of the limited time she had left.

This mindfulness can help us stop resisting a fate we have all been sentenced to.

How beautiful.

You can choose what to do right now. You can choose to make the most out of what you have, right now. It isn’t a “fly by the seat of your pants” approach, but rather an acceptance that the only thing you can do for your future is to control what you are doing right now. It is an acceptance that sometimes it will work, and sometimes it won’t, but as long as the sun still rises and you can still see it, you still have a chance to choose what to do next.

Screw checking off the boxes.

I give my thanks to all the Gildas and the people before me who have taken the time to share their insights before they reached their not-so-ambiguous endings. It helps me to sharpen my own perspective. It reminds me to be mindful in my own life, and that life is not guaranteed. I need those reminders.

It’s now or never.

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