Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Secret to Being Alive

"Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time."  

- Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning.

            Almost five years ago, when I was kicked out of my home I was invited into another one for a year. An old man named Ray who was 40 years sober and whose wife had passed six years earlier let me into his home. He gave me his daughter’s old room. 

            He had an old dog named Colby that had smelly ears. When I once made a comment about the dog’s smelly ears, Ray cleaned them the very next day, though I know the smelly ears had never bothered him. Ray played ping pong on bad knees, was an expert diver, and loved sassing anyone around. He’s 84 now and he’s dying.

            Since I met him, he’s had a heart attack or stroke, or both. He’s had kidney failure more than once. He’s been to the hospital several times for a multitude of health problems. He hates hospitals and tells off the doctors and nurses whenever he goes. He’s very ornery sometimes.

            Yet, every time he’s gone to the hospital, my mom who has taken care of him these past few years, always asks him, “Ray, are you going to die?” He’ll look at her point blank and say, “No.” And each time he hasn’t. He comes home and within a few days is back to his normal routine, which is mostly sitting on his La-Z-Boy all day watching CSI and various other crime shows. Those are his favorite. He thinks everything else is trash.

            These past two months he’s been in and out of the hospital a few different times and has stayed longer than normal. This is the first time he’s ever asked to die. This is the first time when my mom asked him if he’s going to die that he looks at her and doesn’t say a word. We just found out he probably has less than two weeks left.

            I didn’t know Ray is in his youth. I do know that one of the funniest jokes he’s ever said was about being a fireball when he was 70 (referring to sex). I know that his family isn’t the most fond of him and I’m sure they have their reasons, but it’s none of mine or my mom’s business. I only lived with him for a year, but I will be eternally thankful for him and his home and the help he’s given to me and my family.

            I’ve watched Ray’s decline for the past few years. I watched as that first summer he’d dive into the pool and do two laps. Then the next year it was one lap. Then eventually he could get halfway. Until finally, he couldn’t dive or even swim anymore. Ping pong hasn’t happened in years, due to his bad knees. He loves to have people sit next to him, but he can’t tolerate anyone for too long. Mostly I think he likes knowing someone is there, but not having to talk to them. I know he was incredibly lonely before I moved in.

            Since then, my mom and her boyfriend moved in. My mom’s best friend is temporarily moved in while her new house get repairs. My cousin and uncle have both found haven there as well. Ray’s house is homey and I’m sure it’s completely because of his late wife. He likes having people there. He had four children, a full house, and he seems to enjoy sitting in his den listening to the people in the house. They also greatly contribute in taking care of him.

            As I’ve watched Ray decline, I’ve always wondered what he was living for. Since I’ve known him, he’s seemed very determined to make it to 100, though he has no interest in what’s going on in the world, or even many people’s lives. He once seen this 103 year old Asian man on the news do a marathon, and Ray tried to start working out again so he could do that too. At his 60th high school reunion, which me, my mom, and my grandma attended, he was the only one who couldn’t walk well, and afterward he seemed determined to go places more. It mostly resulted in him falling a lot more.

            All this to say, Ray has had this strong will to live, and not just exist. For a while he wanted to do aerobics with my mom, and she pretended to help him follow a video because he couldn’t do any of the movements. She’d turn him away from the T.V. and told him she would explain what to do. Then she’d make up small movements he could do, like lifting his leg up and down. That alone was tiring for him, but he was convinced he was improving every day and following along with everything they did in the video. He was happy and proud when he explained to me his “progress.”

            A 2013 study in the Journal of Public Health found that widows had a 66% increased chance of dying within the first three months of their spouse dying. It’s been about ten years now since his wife died. I’ve always wondered why he wanted to keep going on. Why was he so set on living to 100? What purpose did he have still? He didn’t talk to his children, and in the years I’ve known him, I’ve only seen one of his sons visit him possibly 3 or 4 times. He loved his wife dearly, but when my mom started taking care of him, he wanted to marry her. He formally asked her twice. And now, Ray seems to have finally given up on everything. He’s lost the will to live, and I wonder why now?

            Perhaps this question is timely for the transition of a new year, which is often associated with new beginnings. Ever since I’ve been watching Ray give up, I’ve been thinking that there are three kinds of people: those who are waiting to live, those are waiting to die, and those who are actually living. I don’t think enough of us fit into this last category.

            I think that age may play a role in these different kinds of people, but it’s not the most important one. There are people who spend their lives living in fear of getting hurt that they never really live. There are people who have been hurt so much that they just want to die. But what does it take to be the kind of person who is unafraid? The person who not only wants to live, but is living.

            In Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes his time in a concentration camp. Though everyone endured harsh conditions, limited food rations, and intensive labor, there was a difference between those who survived and those who gave up. He says those who gave up were often dead within a day. Those who survived were the ones who still had purpose. It could be family outside of the camp, or maybe even within it. It could be a man’s lifelong manuscript. Work that they were waiting to go back to. Each survivor had the will to go on because they felt they still had a purpose.

            In “ThePsychology of Purpose,” the John Templeton Foundation describes purpose as, “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and at the same time leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the self.” Purpose can be found from personal experiences to “affairs far removed,” such as learning about a problem going on in the world and wanting to help. Many religions offer purpose, and “love of friends and family, and desire for meaningful work are common sources of purpose.”

            Purpose is both personal and external, because it is related to the bigger world around us. Frankl went on to assist in the development of the first and most widely used standardized survey of purpose, the “Purpose in Life” test. For each of the 20 questions, you must answer with a number 1-5 to determine what is most true for you right now. The test explains, “A score of less than 50 may indicate that you are experiencing an “existential void,” a lack of meaning or purpose in your life right now.”

            I took the test and scored an 86, which I think is pretty good. As I was answering each question, I thought about how at different times of my life I would’ve answered these questions differently. For the past year and a half, my life has been feeling like it’s on an upward path, and I am so excited for all to come. I’m excited to finally, finally finish my novel (I’m so very close and work on it nearly every day). I’m excited to find love, because I finally feel healthy and like myself again. I dread the thought of finding a career, and am not quite excited about that yet, but I believe it will happen eventually. I feel like my life has meaning and purpose and is heading to even more of both.

            Perhaps it’s easy for me to feel this way at 27, unlike Ray at 84. But I know I didn’t feel this way at 12 when my parent’s separated. I know I didn’t feel this way at 22 when I entered my depression. And I didn’t feel this way at 24 after I had been sexually assaulted and was truly broken for a while. Life has a funny way of going up and down, and then back up and back down again until it’s eventually over.

            Research shows that, “About one in five high school students and one in three college students report having a clear purpose in life. Those rates drop slightly into midlife and more precipitously into later adulthood.” This is because purpose is future-oriented, meaning when you think you still have a future to look forward, you try to fill it with things you want to accomplish. Even like something such as running a marathon at age 103.

            One interesting exception to the decline in purpose-seeking as we get older comes with “9-enders,” which is “individuals ending a decade of life, at ages 29, 39, 49, etc.” At these ages, people “tend to focus more on aging and meaning, and consequently, they are more likely to report searching for purpose or experiencing a crisis of meaning.”

            Me and my mom both have theories as to why Ray has given up now. To be honest, I’m not particularly sad, because he has lived a long life. I remember talking to him once about his alcoholism. He explained to me that him and his wife met in May at a dance when they were 23. By that September they were married and stayed married for over 50 years. They bought the house he still lives in today and raised four kids and few dogs there.

            However, Ray was an alcoholic. He said he didn’t know how bad he was until when he was 40 years old, his wife told him that if he didn’t go to an AA meeting, she was going to leave him. He said he’d go, but had no intention to stop drinking. She drove him there, and after his first meeting he never drank another drop again. He told me he realized how horrible he had been to her, but that he spent the rest of their lives making it up to her. To me, that seemed like a purpose.

            He’s still been going to AA meetings since I’ve known him. I think that talking to and helping others there has also been part of his purpose. But I also think there’s been a bigger purpose at play that he doesn’t realize, which is God’s purpose.

            Whether you are a believer or not, this is what I theorize. My mom hasn’t had her own home since I was 12. She spent a time being homeless, and since then has always lived in someone else’s house, including now with Ray. Now, she has a Master’s degree and is a therapist for the homeless. One of her purposes in life is to buy a house. She’s always wanted this since I was little. She’s been saving up to do so, and she’s close enough to do so this year. If Ray hadn’t opened up his home to my mom, I think that goal would’ve been much farther away, because she wouldn’t have been able to save like she has been.

            Living at Ray’s for a year allowed me to save and get on my feet again to then rent an apartment. It’s been helping my mom. And everyone who has entered his home has felt safe, welcome, and at peace. Ray’s late wife is the reason his home is so cozy and welcoming, but who he is now is the reason it’s stayed that way. When I lived there, Ray never questioned what I did or where I went. He was thankful for my presence and allowed me to feel free and wanted. He’s not judgmental and has opened his doors to many who have had doors closed by others.

            But I know Ray misses his wife, and now it’s time for him to join her soon. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s leaving us the year that my mom is within her goal of buying a house. We are losing him and his home, but I think it’s allowing another home to open its doors too. Perhaps, Ray’s stubborn will to live was part of God’s plan until he fulfilled his final purpose. Then again, this is all theory. We can never know why certain people stay with us for so long and others leave us too soon.

            All I know is that for a while now, Ray has been waiting to die. He has stopped living and it's probably because he believes he has no purpose anymore.

            When I was younger, I felt like I was waiting to live. I was so scared of so many things, and when I first traveled abroad, it was one of the scariest things I’d ever done. I didn’t want to be held back by my own irrational fears, so I did something that was completely out of my comfort zone across the world with a whole group of people I didn’t know.

            When I was depressed, I felt like I was waiting to die. Nothing gave me hope or true joy anymore. I was seeking and seeking, but kept coming up dry. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to come out of, but I did eventually.

            Right now, in this moment, I feel like I am living. Truly, happily, genuinely living because I have so much to live for. And it’s so great.

            What can I offer to anyone about what it takes to live? I have no list for you, no guideline to follow. I can only say that life will do terrible things to you, and I’m sure it has already. But those that live, they come back to life because they have a reason to. As Viktor realized, they have a purpose. If you know what yours is, or maybe even if you don’t but trust that God has a purpose for you, then you can keep going. As you work towards this purpose, then you are truly living.


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