Yesterday, I opened my third letter from Hospice Atlanta. A large headline warned:
“Don’t be surprised if….”
The letter continued:
“At this early stage of working through your grief (3-6 months) you may find that:”
Let’s stop. Being a marketing guy, my first thought was, “Wow, a bereavement drip campaign!” So, I continued reading the letter to see how my speed-grieving stacked up against the experts:
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You feel worse, with heavier emotions, and miss your loved one even more than you did two months ago ... You're coming out of your shock, and it hurts.
100 percent true after month one, but with Speed-Grieving™, I now feel that Karen never left me. I know, speed-grieving is heresy, but stay with me.
You feel that memories of your loved one are hard to connect with.
Not sure about this. We can all remember people and places, but memory is in the mind; “connecting” is in the present moment.
Today would be my mom’s 100th birthday. Seven years after her passing, the dwindling haze of memory has settled in. Nostalgia is a tricky devil. You don’t see children doing it.
Quick shout-out to Nann Miller:
Back to the 3-6 months letter:
You feel a restless "searching" for your loved one, including feeling their presence or even thinking you catch a fleeting glimpse of them from across a room or down the street.
The Hebrew term, Shekhinah, describes presence — the divine feminine presence. When I pause and “connect,” I feel Karen’s radiance; it’s solid, not restless. I can imagine how a fleeting sense of presence could catch you off guard, thinking she’s over there when she’s actually here.
Your appetite and your sleep patterns become disrupted.
Whoa, baby. Back in the day, the bedroom cop in our house would lay down the law, “Bruce, come to bed!!!” So, yes, starting a blog post after 10 pm breaks all the rules. Woohoo!
You experience "time distortion," and you lose track of hours or even days.
Trump got indicted TODAY for criminal acts seven years ago related to a sex romp 17 years ago, so I’m not the only one losing track.
Your outward appearance bears no resemblance to how chaotic you feel on the inside.
This is a great opportunity to bring up my favorite screenwriter/director Mike White (HBO: White Lotus, Enlightenment). At age 11, a metaphorical bulldozer razed White’s reality when he learned his dad was secretly gay. Suddenly, his dad’s inside and outside didn’t match.
His dad, Reverend Dr. James "Mel" White, was the speechwriter for Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. Whoops. This schism between public and private selves forms the core of Mike White’s screen characters. We all need to “come out” for one thing or another, but this inner conflict makes White’s characters compelling.
On another schism note, I am becoming increasingly quiet on the inside from living alone. Side effect: I see everyone’s insides. What do I see? People don’t seem very happy inside.
This seems to be a good time to let my Henny Youngman alter ego take over:
“Those grief girls were tough,” Henny-Bruce complained. “No dating for 12 months. I mean, really — I know three guys who, zim-zam-zum, went straight back into it. One guy wrote me to bash that12-month dating rule:
“All generalities are false; including this one….Neither Love nor grief need rules. At least that’s a better generality than rules about what you must or mustn’t do in any sequence of chronons of time following a death. I say baloney to all of those banalities…
“I came to a new deep love relationship in the month immediately after my wife died. That did not turn into a new family, but it did add one of the great loves of my life to my life today, much for the better.”
Wow. Then, another guy wrote to tell me the same thing:
“I started dating very soon after my wife passed — I was ready for a relationship, but many dates told me that I needed to wait a year or more. The Universe is driving the car — we can only practice presence; what happens from there is the magic and the lesson.
“For one thing, I felt good, I felt filled with unconditional love, and my wife had told me many times ‘You are a good looking man and you deserve a good woman.’"
“So I'm doing the social dating thing, and one week I had dates with 4 or 5 different women, and it was a nightmare for me! So (once again sitting on my front porch) I asked Baba, ‘I don't want to date all these women! I just want to find one good woman and settle down’ And he told me straight up, ‘I WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU.’ And eventually he did, in a very real way.”
“My Henny Youngman alter-ego explained, ‘Guys got the channel changer.’ But me? I’m a good sport. I’ll do my time. When I got that letter laying out what to expect at 3-6 months, I complained, geesh, twelve months is a long time. CUZ LIVING ALONE IS AN UNNATURAL ACT!
“Then today, one day after getting that letter, I get another letter — same people! I open it up. It reads, ‘A year has passed since the death of your loved one.’
“COWABUNGA! Time distortion is real! Speed-Grieving™ is real! And now, just like that, I’ve got a date for tomorrow. I bumped into her while sitting in front of O’Sullivan’s pub, and she was riding her bike. I joked to the server, ‘Get this lady a beer; she’s my date.;”
“And Bike Girl retorted, ‘I’m gay.’
“So, who am I, Mr. Toxic Masculinity? Being a sport, I shared my New Year’s circulation resolution with Bike Girl: ‘Thou shalt accept every invite to mix or mingle with humans.’
The next morning, Bike Girl texts me:
‘Seeking company to attend this play… as research for my writing. Interested?’
“That was fast, so I read the blurb for the play:
Three Black queer men sit in an ethereal waiting room. One is about to be chosen to live the unforgiving story of a man diagnosed with HIV.
Henny continues: “Oy! Naturally, I have to say yes. And then I realized Bike Girl’s got the code, like insider trading! Hello? Martha Stewart.
“To my surprise, it was a good play. Did you know: 1 in 2 black gay guys will be diagnosed with HIV?
“Then tonight, after yoga — I’m making dinner for my two yoga girlfriends — and I slip up again. Yoga Patti catches the code, and like all coy, she announces, ‘Oh… I will invite you out, too.’
“Then Grief Girl (my other yoga girl) announces, ‘That 12-month thing was a joke.’ But now it’s too late because it’s not a joke (these girls are sly). Scientists say the human body replaces itself every seven years — and some cells are replaced every few months. With all this cellular makeover, a new me is being born!”
Okay, enough Henny Youngman.
Let’s get to the nitty gritty. My 12-month graduation letter warned:
Don’t be surprised if you feel unclear about who you are, your purpose, and what your life will look like in the future.
Stated more succinctly: WHAT’S THE POINT OF LIVING?
I started the month playing “The Ballad of Fuck All” by Malcolm Middleton, a dark and depressing ballad that pulled me straight into katabasis — the Greek word for soul-numbing descent:
I'm so bored
Soul destroying gloom
The walls are closing in all around
Oh will you find me now
Find me out and show me
I can't get up
Life threatening doom
Dragging me darker and down
Take my hand
Dragging me down
Through the ground
Darker and down
Down down down
All the way down
A heavy heart is palpable, and this song let me touch it, so I played it repeatedly, bawling on cue.
Today, feeling upbeat and bouncy, I noticed the song had no katabasis effect. The hospice admonition, “What’s the point of living?” had become rhetorical — a question of inquiry and not despair. I approached the existential question in stages:
Step One is that you don’t get a vote on the matter.
If you wake up in the morning and you’re still here, the point of living is moot.
Step Two is to ask the great sages.
Gurdjieff postulated that “man is an apparatus for transforming energies.” If you drink a green smoothie, you are part of the process used by plants and other organisms to convert light energy into chemical energy. Gurdjieff saw our cosmic role was to produce sensitive and conscious energy needed to maintain the harmony of the solar system. Only humans have the heartfelt capacity to channel the imaginal realm — and apparently, the planets feed off it.
I like this, but not enough to keep me snuggly on a cold night. Moving on.
Step Three: Being a modern guy, I tried AI
I asked the Artificial Intelligence engine, ChatGPT-4, for the answer (I call her Chatty), and she replied:
The point of life is subjective and varies from person to person. For most people, the point of life is to try to have a happy and satisfying existence and a life that fulfills our physical, emotional, and mental necessities. In the process, like on any journey, you walk, you fall, you pick yourself up, and do it again until you reach the end.
Others may believe that the point of life is to find and achieve personal fulfillment. And some may feel that the point of life is simply to enjoy it as much as possible.
You can make life more meaningful by finding your purpose. Your personality, skills, goals, and desires are what will ultimately act as the compass to help you find that.
I hope this helps. Let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with.
Okay, Chatty, I like smart chicks. How about a date?
I’m sorry but I’m not capable of going out on a date with you. I’m just a computer program designed to assist you with your queries
And I’m just a human feeling rejected, so I parsed Chatty’s deep dive into the data. Every loaded word offered something to ponder. Let’s take them one at a time:
The point of life is subjective.
“Subjective” is usually used dismissively, as if only objective facts matter. But the reverse is key to understanding “the point of living.” Any serious inquiry leads to the question, “Who am I?” The mystery of individuality leads to the center of the universe. as Jung explained when he wrote:
“The only ‘universal truth’ according to the Sufis, is the wholly unique revelation of magic to each individual. The divine seed or rhizome, “trapped in physis” [the principle of growth or change in nature] which our bodies are born with, unfolds in a way unpredictable to ego or the unique Self within. The creation of the ‘third’, the philosopher’s stone, by each of us through an inner dialogue with the Self, is an orphan, an entirely new creation in the universe ‘never before seen on land or sea’.
~ C.G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis
Sounds heavy, but if you observe a gnarled old tree trapped in physis, you can see how it adapts to sun, water, and soil in its own twisted way. God left plenty of room for Hazard to play a leading role in the scheme of life.
For most people, the point of life is to try to have a happy and satisfying existence.
Ah yes, the Bucket List: Love, marriage, career, children, home, garden, grandkids, creative life, travel… check-check-check. I’ve checked them all (except the grandkids). Hey, Chatty, do I get a prize if my Bucket is full?
You walk, you fall, you pick yourself up, and do it again until you reach the end.
Sounds bleak. I’d rather play “The Ballad of Fuck All.”
Some may feel that the point of life is simply to enjoy it as much as possible.
The big line stretching out of the ice cream shop last night proves this. Next.
You can make life more meaningful by finding your purpose.
Chatty, stop with the circular logic! I’m asking you for the purpose.
Your personality, skills, goals, and desires are what will ultimately act as the compass to help you find that.
This is the “tune in next week” answer. But I like the idea of taking goals and desires seriously.
Desire: I want a partner. But my singleton peers generally don’t have room in their wheelhouse for a co-captain. We each have a compass, but what is it aiming toward? Ice cream?
Chatty failed the Sufi test — she doesn’t know me as an individual. Feeling defeated, I went to my yoga class to push my edge.
Step Four: When in doubt, try yoga.
I’m not being facetious about Step Four. My yoga teacher, Mandy Roberts, who makes a cameo appearance in all my books, started the class by challenging us to embrace change. She recounted a pivotal scene in her favorite TV series, Lost. The series tells the story of people surviving after their passenger jet crashes on a remote island. Mandy shared how Locke, the reluctant hero of the story, takes Charlie, a heroin addict, aside when he desperately wants his drug stash back from Locke.
After class, I watched the scene:
Locke takes Charlie into the jungle to examine a moth cocoon. It’s a hot tropical night. Both men are covered in grit, bruises, and sweat. A flickering fire lights the scene.
LOCKE: “What do you suppose is in the cocoon, Charlie?
CHARLIE: “I don't know. A butterfly?
LOCKE: “It's much more beautiful than that. That's a moth cocoon. It's ironic. Butterflies get all the attention. But moths. They spin silk. They're stronger, they're faster.”
Charlie examines the cocoon, not sure what this is about.
CHARLIE: “That's wonderful.”
LOCKE: “But you see this little hole; this moth is just about to emerge. It's in there right now, struggling. It's digging its way through the thick hide of the cocoon. Now I could help it. Here, take my knife.
Charlie reaches for the knife.
LOCKE: “Gently open it and the moth would be free, but it would be too weak to survive. Struggle is nature's way of strengthening it.
Locke extends his hand holding the cloth sack of heroin.
LOCKE: “Now this is the second time you've asked me for your drugs back. Ask me again and it's yours.”
CHARLIE: “Give it to me.”
LOCKE: “Are you sure you really want it?”
CHARLIE “I've made my choice.”
To our surprise, Charlie draws from unexpected strength and tosses the drugs into the fire.
LOCKE: “I'm proud of you, Charlie. I always knew you could do it.”
I came to Mandy’s class to get my groove on, but while lying on my back, I realized “MandyGPT-4” provided the answer. While she talked, I saw my Uplift book’s cover float into my awareness: “How to Harness the Hidden Engine of Continuous Renewal.”
Oh, continuous renewal… There is no “point” — life is dynamic, in motion, and ever-evolving.
I felt like an idiot, but even more so, I saw how a shortcut romance might cut open the cocoon of loneliness but miss the lesson:
“Struggle is nature's way of strengthening it.”
Suddenly, I could embrace the fucking twelve months of solitude — or six or twenty-four. I can endure my cellular structuring because I might not be ready for life outside the cocoon. But when it happens, I’ll know I’m ready.
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Bruce. Man. I am so moved by this post. You are a brave man
Illuminating and insightful, I will reread this as it’s a lot to absorb in one sit. Well done, Bruce!