The sudden passing of beloved journalist Bre Payton has given all of us who knew her or knew of her pause. Death finds us all eventually, but when it takes someone so young and vibrant it can be a stinging reminder of how fleeting and unfair life can be.
In the wake of her death, many tributes have been penned and posted. Their common thread is to celebrate the life of Ms. Payton, but also to celebrate life in general. Each one has come with the joyful admonishment to “live life to the fullest” and “take advantage of every day as if it were your last.”
It is good to be reminded of those things, and I think it is a healthy response to loss…a necessary one, even. However, there’s an idea buried beneath the sentiment of “live every day to the fullest” that can end up producing stress, unhappiness and a feeling of failure. It’s the idea that if we are not living every day to the fullest we are failing. If we are not loving and embracing our loved ones at any given moment we are failing.
Any mother knows exactly what I’m talking about. When you first have babies, there is no shortage of people telling you, “It goes so fast. Enjoy every second!” But when you’re in the heat of child-rearing it is nearly impossible to enjoy every second. In between periods of ridiculous joy there is fatigue, failure, and an impossible battle of wills. You would die for this person without hesitation, and also you are dying for just a small break from said person. Enjoying every second isn’t possible, and yet so many people tell you that you’ll regret it if you don’t that you begin to feel like a bad mother. You start feeling like a failure for complaining. You start obsessing about enjoying every moment which in turn makes everything ten times more stressful. It just isn’t realistic.
That is the same problem embedded in the very well-meaning suggestion to live every day to it’s fullest, as if it were your last, etc. etc. We take it to mean that if we are not happy in every moment, if we are not savoring every second we are failing at living to the fullest.
I don’t want us to stop staying such things to each other in the wake of tragic loss. They are good reminders.
I do want us to start thinking a little differently about what it means to live life to the fullest so that we don’t get bogged down in failure, as humans are wont to do.
Living well isn’t a non-stop march of happiness. In fact, the “happiness” part is elusive and rare. It is the golden ring we chase. C.S. Lewis posited that “joy” is not actually in the having but in the pursuit. I could take it to church here and connect that to our pursuit of God, but that’s another column for another time. The point is that while we are all connecting living fruitfully to happiness, the real satisfaction is from pursuit. The “happiness” is the momentary high we feel having achieved something, but it never lasts. Contentment is rare. Joy is struggle.
Living life to its fullest doesn’t mean we should be constantly happy and thankful. It doesn’t mean that we should never be angry with our loved ones or work too hard or endure mistakes. It doesn't mean we should never feel sad or hurt. Living life to its fullest simply means surrendering to these things as a necessary part of life.
In my own life it has been my tendency to simply banish the people and things I don’t like or don’t care to deal with. I have a pathological aversion to rehashing the past. I don’t care for nostalgia. My regrets don’t exist if I never have to see anyone or anything that reminds me of them. It’s a sickness and a horrible way to live.
Many people would look at my lifestyle, beautiful family and career accomplishments and call that living. Only recently have I come to realize that my tendency to run from the past sucks the “living every moment” thing right out of my present.
Living involves a range of conflicting experiences and emotions. It isn’t a smooth path, but a jagged mountain filled with plateaus and sharp edges, peaks and unsure footing. There are landslides and safety ropes, times of unquenchable thirst and times when you are drenched in life-giving water. There are times when you are lost and others when you know exactly where you are heading. Sometimes people climb part of it with you, and sometimes you cling to the sheer rock-face all alone.
To truly live to the fullest we must not work to push these realities away in the name of happiness but rather we must fully embrace the entire spectrum of living. We have to be willing to let it all wash over us again and again and again.
Be mad. Have that fight with your spouse. Sulk. Cry. Then be happy. Make love to your spouse. Joke. Laugh.
Embrace those feelings of loneliness you might feel at the holidays - go through it, not over. Don’t run away from envy or even ungratefulness. And when those feelings pass, embrace the people who do care for you, trade your envy in for becoming a great cheerleader to your friends and family, be thankful.
Do all of these things, for this is what we call living. The pain, the ecstasy, the tragedy and the joy…all of it makes up life. So live life to the messiest, the happiest, the crankiest, the fullest.
And don’t feel guilty…just feel.