2019 has been an enlightening year so far. I’ve changed a lot in the last month. I made quite big decisions, going for options I refused to acknowledge but were actually better for me. It was overwhelming but in a good way. I didn’t enjoy all the crying and realizing the crappy person I’ve been and the consequently crappy decisions I’ve made, but I was grateful for what that overwhelm brought about next.
On several occasions in the last few years, I’ve found perfect clarity about what I wanted to do next – what to study, what kind of person to marry, what kind of career to pursue and so on. And on several occasions, I’ve changed my plan when both I and the world around me changed. Today, I know what I want to give to life and take from it, and for the time being, it remains unchanged.
If you’ve been a longtime reader of this blog then you know that death is a recurring topic in my writing. I don’t think or write about it all the time, but every once in a while I feel conflicted and lost. I don’t know where I’m going with my life and I’m suddenly shit scared of death as if it’s just waiting for me behind that door, ready to jump out and take hold of me. I’m perfectly healthy (though New Delhi’s smog is slowly, very slowly, killing us all) so illness doesn’t have a chance of taking me away right now. No one hates me so much to possibly murder me, and except for my overthinking, I’m in a good mental state so there’s no scope for taking my own life.
But sometimes my overthinking can turn into paranoia and I start mentally imagining all the ways I could die, sitting here at my computer, writing about it. There could be a terrible earthquake. We’re on the third floor with buildings all around squeezed together. There would be nowhere to go. Lightning could strike this building. The roaring clouds might burst open. If I go out of the house, I might get run over, or someone might attack me. I could be in a road accident. If I go by the underground metro line and an earthquake hits, we’ll be stuck three levels deep in the earth, suffocate in metal boxes with windows that show nothing but darkness. If not that, I might get a heart attack. Who knows? There are so many ways to die.
It reminds me of a story we had in Class 12, called On the Face of It by Susan Hill. It was a one-act play about an old man, Mr. Lamb, who lived alone but cheerfully and welcomed everyone’s company, and Derek, a young boy who had a half-burned face and thought no one loved him and thought life was pointless. I didn’t like the play, but the story Mr. Lamb told Derry stayed with me. It went thus:
DERRY: I don’t like being near people. When they stare….when I see them being afraid of me.
MR LAMB: You could lock yourself up in a room and never leave it. There was a man who did that. He was afraid, you see. Of everything. Everything in this world. A bus might run him over, or a man might breathe deadly germs onto him, or a donkey might kick him to death, or lightning might strike him down, or he might love a girl and the girl would leave him, and he might slip on a banana skin and fall and people who saw him would laugh their heads off. So he went into this room, and locked the door, and got into his bed, and stayed there.
DERRY: For ever?
MR LAMB: For a while.
DERRY: Then what?
MR LAMB: A picture fell off the wall on to his head and killed him.
So simple right? Death could strike us anytime. We wouldn’t even know. The only consolation I keep giving myself is that when I’ll be dead, I wouldn’t know if I died young or old, loved or lonely, happy or sad, because I’ll be dead. I’m glad no one planted firmly the idea of an afterlife in my mind because it makes death so much scarier. You’ll be dead and you would still have the awareness that you couldn’t do the things you wanted to, that you lived an unfulfilled life and so on.
You’ll be dead, and you wouldn’t know. Which is reassuring. The people I’ll leave behind might know, but I won’t be able to do anything about it when I’m dead, could I?
All I can do, I can do while I’m still here. And I see two ways to do it. To write about my life in my diaries so my loved ones can know that even though I had my ups and downs, I had things to be grateful for. They can know the kind of life I was leading and then perhaps they won’t mourn my death so much as celebrate my life.
The second way is to live the life I want to live. Now I know I have the freedom to say that because I’m young, haven’t even started college, don’t have a job or a family to look after. I don’t have many responsibilities that might be holding me back from living the life that I want to. And I should take advantage of it.
A couple of months ago I came across The Five-Minute Journal, which is all about happiness and productivity, etc. I liked the idea and tried to make something similar for myself, with questions that better suited the kind of life I wanted to live and the things I wanted to do. Here’s a sampling of questions to give you an idea:
How did I give back to the world today?
What did I do today that I should do more of?
What did I do for my future self today?
What did I create/make today?
These are only a handful of the other questions that I tried to answer at the end of every day, as a way of examining if I was living the life I wanted. However, hardly halfway into January (I started in 2019), I gave up because I realized it wasn’t doing what I’d thought it would – help me be my ideal self. What it ended up doing instead was forcing me to scrutinize every single thing I did and then making me feel bad about how I failed and so wasn’t living the best life I could.
Now, however, I’ve decided that I’m going to ask myself only a single question at the end of every day: Did I live today?
I was initially going to use the word ‘fun’, but sometimes living is more than just fun. It can be eye-opening. It can be serious. It can make you laugh. It can make you cry. It can make you grateful, and so much more. ‘Fun’ doesn’t include all of these things; ‘live’ does.
And it is quite liberating to think of your days in this way–the meaning of living can differ from person to person. What is just a habit for me (writing) may be your whole life for you, and vice versa. For me, living means two things–being happy and contributing to the world.
Being happy includes things like having a good writing day, reading an amazing book, finding an answer to something that’s troubling me, memes, videos of baby animals, pulling my sister’s leg with my mother, coming across good news, eating good food, laughing until my stomach hurts, a deep conversation with my mother, and so on. Mostly, days spent laughing are the ones I look back upon as days truly lived.
Nothing makes me feel more alive than laughing. You are completely present in the moment. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t get the joke and you wouldn’t laugh. It’s also healthy for you – the best medicine.
As for contributing to the world, I’m not so sure yet. There are so many causes that I believe in. I know I can’t spread myself too thin and I can’t change the world. But in my own small ways, I can make it better. The causes I choose to believe in are causes determined by my values, and if I live by my values, I’m doing my small bit. Of course, we can all do more. I know I can and I’m constantly looking for ways to do it. But even doing the least – by living by your values – is more effective than doing nothing at all.
I need to keep writing these things to remind myself of them. Just like the loneliness hits me out of the blue, sometimes I can spend days worrying about the issues that I believe in, feeling completely powerless to do anything. I overthink, I worry too much, I look for solutions. Sometimes, I cry.
But more often than not, I just try to remind myself that I can’t and am not obliged to save the world.
I can’t live without doing anything at all; my conscience–or more truthfully, my anxiety about where the world is heading–won’t let me just sit there and do nothing. I’m not the government or anyone who has any sort of influence to bring about effective policy change to make this world more livable. I have my vote, and I have my voice, and I have the actions I choose to take. They may not have a considerable impact, but they will have an impact nonetheless, and I will be a little happier knowing that I actually did something.
All this talk about life and living, and I’ve hardly mentioned writing even though I keep talking about how much I love writing and how much it hurt when it felt like I’d almost fallen out of love with it.
Once upon a time, I wanted to be an author and wanted to write sad short story collections.
But a lot has changed since. I’m already a writer–have been one since I started writing regularly and decided that publication doesn’t make someone a writer, writing does (I’m pretty sure I’ve read those words somewhere before, but I can’t recall where). I still want to write. I can’t not write. I have to write. I love writing, and I see no reason to stop.
But being a writer is no longer a priority the way it used to be, back when I imagined myself making a living by writing stories for literary magazines. Which was not a very long time ago.
Now I want to write stories and I want to get them published, but not to make a living. I want to write stories because I love writing them. I want to get them published to give readers something (hopefully) good to read. I want to write happy stories, stories full of hope and optimism. In a world of dystopian stories, I want to write a utopia. Give people a different, brighter world to look forward to. My stories may not move them to change the world, and that’s not really the reason I want to write them.
I want to write them because I want to read happy stories too. They’re so hard to find in a time when dystopian stories are selling like hotcakes. I have nothing against them; sometimes I enjoy them and sometimes these stories can drive people to act too.
But mainly, I want my stories to comfort those like me who might be troubled by what some psychologists are calling ‘ecoanxiety’.
I also dreamed of being a prolific writer. I still do. It’s my equivalent of being a bestselling author. I would love nothing more than to look back upon a great body of work, even if most of them were written for me and never saw the light of the day.
I’m currently writing one story per week. At this rate, assuming I live that long, I would have written 3178 stories by January 1st, 2080. For 2070, the number stands at 2657 stories; for 2060, it’s 2135. And for 2050, the figures are 1613. I’m trying not to imagine dying sooner than that.
I think these are good numbers and can be considered prolific. Even the smallest number here, 1613, is more than twice the number of stories written by some famous writers (I googled it; you know better). Depending on tons of factors like random light bulb moments, availability of time, resources at hand, and so on, these numbers will, of course, greatly vary. I hope I’ll write more than one story per week.
Until the writing of this piece, if someone would ask me what I wanted to do, I would say I want to be a writer. But now, I’ll answer, “I want to do something for the world.” I can already imagine people saying, “No, as in what career you want to pursue?”
The truth is, I no longer want to pursue a career in writing (stories). Or any other field for that matter. How I’ll make a living is a discussion for another post. We mostly think of ‘career’ and ‘what a person wants to do’ as one and the same. For some people, that might be true. But for me, it isn’t.
For me, writing is important, but serving the world is more important.
Now when I think of the future, I don’t imagine myself locked away in my own studio writing all day long (though it would be great to have some days like that once in a while). Instead, I imagine myself doing something for the environment, even if it means something small like writing an article on the need for urgent action against the use of fossil fuels.
I don’t want to sit and despair. I want to do something. Have an impact. Leave marks on this world, one in green, the other in ink.
This is how I want to answer the question, Did I live today? I want to live for myself, for others, and for the future. If I’m able to do at least some of that each day, then I will have lived the life I’ve always wanted. I want to truly live each day not because tomorrow is promised to no one but because today will never come again. Because sometimes when I go to bed afraid if I’ll wake up tomorrow, it’’’ be reassuring to know that I lived today.
One day at a time.