Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Living Is More Than Just Being Alive: Sunday musings…7/10/2022

“S/He’s living her/his best life.” Seems I hear some version of that phrase to describe someone pretty much everyday. Most times I just smile, or maybe chuckle if it was said sarcastically or if the speaker was aiming for irony, but hearing it usually leaves no impact of any significance. What does it even mean, you know? Best in what way? Best possible for them? For anyone? What does it take to live your best life, anyway?

I am home after sneaking away early from a conference this weekend. Among my professional colleagues I am famous for making all kinds of plans to stick around to the bitter end of a meeting and then pulling an “Irish Goodbye” a day or two early. This time was kinda funny because you could reasonably said the it was an example of me “living my best life”. Or at least one version of “best life”. I was among many professional friends, some of whom I’ve known for decades. They were happy that I was there, and I in turn was quite happy to see all of them. The topics covered were in my wheelhouse, and happily every question lobbed in my direction came in as straight and true as a batting practice fastball.

Yes indeed, professionally I was living my best life.

Among this group of colleagues is a smaller group of people who are, or are becoming, friends without a qualifier. People who I would try to see and hang out with every week if we lived closer. One of them–I’ll call him Mark because, you know, that’s his name–is someone with whom I’ve been exploring two of my pet themes: friendship and happiness. Mark and I are close enough in age and life stage that we cone to these topics, and the vocabulary necessary to discuss them, with a kind of ease and comfort. We’ve talked about the Harvard Class of ’55 study that showed that, outside of being married, the only thing that consistently results in happiness is the presence of three close friends.

Mark is a very successful executive who has moved around a bit during his career. Beth and I moved a bit during our younger years before settling in Ohio 30-some years ago. Despite this pattern deviation between us, Mark and I agree that our jobs and our commitment to family have made it difficult for us to cultivate those local friendships. I’m not sure how Mark views his situation, but I’m pretty sure that I bear more than 1/2 of the responsibility for mine. Since our dear friends Bill and Nancy decamped for Cincinnati I’m sure that my side of the effort equation has been lacking hereabouts.

And yet, despite that, I’m really quite happy at the moment, however much I may worry about what is to come, and I think Mark feels the same. Why? Well, we are both married for one thing, and anyone who reads my pabulum here knows that I am blissfully married at that. As much as I like my professional friends and colleagues, I do have a small tribe of buddies whose company I throughly enjoy, who have thus far continued to welcome me as a tribemate. As I flew home on my secret ninja express yesterday, thinking about Mark and our latest exploration of middle-aged mandom, I realized that not only am I not alone, not even remotely, but it is more likely than not that I will spend much more time with this tribe as we all leave our working lives behind.

Mark and I both have people we live with, and who we live for.

Flying home I realized how lucky I am to have these people. Beth, my kids and grandkids. Siblings and their spouses, all of whom I would love to see every week. My little tribe here locally and all of my professional friends I see over the course of a year. Bill and Nancy, who we still see every couple of months. It made me think of a man I once met at work who had no one, and what I wrote about him after we met.

Billy Ray (not his real name, of course) turned off his implantable defibrillator (ICD). Billy Ray is 44.

In my day job, in the days that I did in-house consultations, I was asked to evaluate Billy Ray for a problem in my specialty. I was told he was about to enter hospice care and assumed that he was much, much older and simply out of options. I admit that I was somewhat put out by the request, it being Saturday and the problem already well-controlled. Frankly, I thought it was a waste of my time, Billy Ray’s time, and whoever might read my report’s time, not to mention the unnecessary costs. I had a very pleasant visit with Billy Ray, reassured him that the problem for which I was called was resolving nicely, and left the room to write my report.

44 years old though. What was his fatal illness? What was sending him off to Hospice care? I bumped into his medical doc and couldn’t resist asking. Turns out that Billy Ray has a diseased heart that is on the brink of failing; without the ICD his heart will eventually beat without a rhythm and he will die. A classic indication for a heart transplant–why was Billy Ray not on a transplant list? Why, for Heaven’s sake, did he turn off his ICD?

There is a difference between being alive and living, having a life. It’s not the same to say that one is alive and that one is living. It turns out that Billy Ray suffered an injury at age 20 and has lived 24 years in unremitting, untreatable pain. Cut off before he even began he never married, has no children. Each day was so filled with the primal effort to stop the pain he had little left over for friendship.

Alive without a life. Alive without living. Billy Ray cried “Uncle”.

I have been haunted by this since I walked out of the hospital. How do you make this decision? Where do you turn? Billy Ray has made clear he has no one. Does a person in this situation become MORE religious or LESS? Rage against an unjust God or find comfort in the hope of an afterlife? Charles DeGaulle had a child with Down’s Syndrome. On her death at age 20 he said “now she is just like everyone else.” Is this what Billy Ray is thinking? That in death he will finally be the same as everyone else?

And what does this say about each of us in our lives? What does it say about the problems that we face, the things that might make us rage against some personal injustice? How might we see our various infirmities when cast in the shadow of a man who has lived more than half his life in constant pain, a man alone? The answer, of course, is obvious, eh?

The more subtle message is about people, having people. Having family, friends, people for whom one might choose to live. It’s very easy to understand the heroic efforts others make to survive in spite of the odds, despite the pain. Somewhere deep inside the will to live exists in the drive to live for others. The sadness I felt leaving the hospital and what haunts me is not so much Billy Ray’s decision but my complete and utter understanding of his decision.

Billy Ray gave lie to the heretofore truism that “no man is an island”.

Find your people. Allow yourself to be found. Go out and build your bridges. Build the connections to others that will build your will to live. Live so that you will be alive for your others. Be alive so that your life will be more than something which hinges on nothing more than a switch that can be turned off. Live with and for others so that you, too, can understand not only Billy Ray but also those unnamed people who fight for every minute of a life.

Be more than just alive. Living your best life means living with, and for, your people.

Thanks to my friend Mark for the inspiration. I’ll see you next week…

One Response to “Living Is More Than Just Being Alive: Sunday musings…7/10/2022”

  1. July 11th, 2022 at 9:51 am

    Ann Paras says:

    So thoughtfully expressed Darrell!
    I love reading your columns.
    Thank you for sharing your insights.
    Love you, Beth and your family very much.

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