Are we alive or are we just pretending?
Today at work I was teaching a five year old how to make a cootie catcher. We folded the paper over and over again until it formed the beaked monster. I explained to him that on the outside flaps you write words, and when selected by someone, you spell the word with each open and close of the cootie catcher. Next, I explained that on the inside flaps you write numbers, or more words, that you then count or spell once again as you open and close the cootie catcher. Lastly, I said to him, “On the very inside you write a fortune, question, or a dare, there are eight total”. We took turns coming up with silly dares like “Run into the wall and break your leg” and silly fortunes like “May the farts be with you”.
However, when it came time to write a question, he paused in thought and said to me, “Write: Are we alive or are we just pretending?” And I was speechless. I didn’t immediately write the question on his cootie catcher. I was so caught off guard, his question pierced my soul. Such profundity from such a small human. The teachers joke that he is a child prodigy and genius, because he’s clever and cunning and just out right smart. But his philosophical and existential question was earth shattering to me. And I could tell he knew what he meant, too. It wasn’t just nonsensical kid-talk that I interpreted as meaningful. He and I both knew the weight of his question. He went there and it was powerful.
Later that night Ryan and I talked about what it means to be alive and to pretend to be alive. I initially thought of Howard Thurman’s quote: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” That’s partly about being alive vs. pretending to be alive. Doing the kind of work and living the kind of life that fuels your soul. But surely that’s not all that being alive means.
A friend mentioned that being alive to everything sounds overwhelming when most days so many people are just trying to live. That got me thinking and I wonder if being alive and simply just trying to live are the same thing. Being alive is embracing the act of “trying to live” in all it’s difficulty. Another friend said that “being alive” is so abstract and can’t be pinned down to an applicable formula, which I totally agree with. And, lastly, another friend said, “I think our society associates “being alive” with happy positive things, but you can feel alive in the pain and sadness… I think. Like being present in those things and re-framing “being alive” as being present. Because otherwise being alive all the time would be a god damn a lot of work”.
And some kind of conglomeration of everything that was said is basically the conclusion I am trying to arrive at and hold for myself. Bringing awareness and openness to all aspects of life is being alive. Being alive is not ignoring the hard conversation, not running from pain, not cutting off negative feelings. How do we be alive in the moments that are painful, mundane, extremely ordinary, and difficult? The inevitable parts of life that are annoying and we’d really rather not be there? How do we, instead of going on Instagram or daydreaming into fantasies, engage with the feelings that are showing up in our bodies? How do we look the person we’re with in the eye? How do we handle the chaos of a bunch of screaming children? How do we make decisions when we’re overwhelmed or bored? How do we trust ourselves, our bodies, and our experiences to lead us through whatever it is we’re finding ourselves in?
It’s easier to be present and alive to things that are enjoyable and fun and exciting. To the trips we’ve planned and the things in life that are going super well for us. But what if an unexpected event happens or we didn’t really think through the details exactly right and something doesn’t go according to our expectations? How do we re-frame our perspective to make whatever it is we want to avoid or run from worth present mindedness and undivided attention? We’ve got to show up. Pain is worth it, discomfort is worth it, frustration is worth it. Negative feelings and uncomfortable situations are worth a present body and mind.
This is the hardest lesson I think I’ll ever learn in my life. And it’s a daily lesson. One that requires paying attention, action, and constant learning, adjusting, and re-framing. It’s not something I can do on my own either — I need my partner, my close friends, my trusted mentors, my family, and my professionals (therapist and spiritual director).
For me, maybe being present and being alive looks completely different each day. I do think there will be patterns though because we are habitual and patterned beings. Maybe one day I need to focus on all the sensations that pass through my feet and toes because I am disconnected from them and what grounds me. Maybe another day I need to focus on my thoughts and internal dialogue and trust that my body will guide and ground me as I lean into the abstract and floating ways of the mind. Maybe the next day everything is pissing me off and it’s gloomy and I hate my job … I honestly have NO idea how to be present to that except to love myself through it. I’m open to learning and becoming and I am eager to be alive and to live this life, simply and fully.
***These are my thoughts, opinions, and beliefs and I say “we” as a way of offering this perspective up to anyone who also resonates with it. It definitely isn’t for everyone and I am in no way saying that this is the only or right way of viewing “being alive”***