I am unfortunately inclined towards the kinds of sayings that are made into magnets. Do I have "Keep Calm and Carry On" coaster? Yes. I hate this about myself, but yes. Do I secretly write down bumper sticker phrases -- like "Life doesn't put things in front of you you are unable to handle," or "In the end we only regret the chances we did not take" -- in a tangerine colored notebook titled "Things To Keep In Mind?" Guilty. If I was at someone's house and noticed they had tons of encouraging quote paraphernalia (especially, but not limited to, encouraging quotes made into vinyl stickers in Papyrus to be stuck on walls), I would dismiss that person entirely and never respond to their text messages. And yet, I am one of them.
The problem with the kinds of sayings that are made into magnets is that they oversimplify everything. They try to neaten the big, messy problems of being alive, presumably so we can all stop worrying and have more time to watch television. My sister says encouraging quotes like these make her react with anger and frustration; they imply to her that the life she is trying so hard to live well will never be good enough. My sister is smart, and hip bike-riding novel-writing twentysomethings who would never put an encouraging quote within 10 miles of themselves are smart, and my grandfather who loves to point out that "that was taken out of context!" is also smart. But still, greeting card companies know that people like things to be simplified. I am a simple person. I enjoy television.
The quote that I've been returning to lately is one I found on Facebook, presented as one of the Internet memes designed to look like it had been composed on a rusty typewriter. It's one of those overly-simplified Buddhist sayings that was never actually said by the Buddha. Someone at Hallmark is really good at looking at Buddhist texts, saying, "I think basically what he's trying to get at here with all these trees and fires and frogs is essentially this," and then turning that into a greeting card. There's a whole website of fake Buddhist sayings. It kind of shatters any sort of western ideal of culturally-appropriated Buddhist traditions in one fell swoop. Which is awesome.
But I found this quote on George Takei's Facebook wall. You know, George Takei. The internationally-known gay rights activist who also happened to play Sulu on Star Trek. George Takei is not my actual Facebook friend, per se, but I follow him, because I think he probably will be my Facebook friend eventually. That's the kind of ladder I feel like I am climbing.
The bastardized, Takei-ized quote goes like this:
In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.
Don't you feel like you just read that on someone's refrigerator? It's the ultimate magnet saying. But I still wrote it down and taped it onto my writing desk, and I've been thinking about it a lot while driving alone. You've got to hand it to that guy at Hallmark. He sure knows how to add a certain cadence to what he seems to pull tangentially from the Buddhavacana.
Yesterday I found myself (once again) under the top layer of covers on my bed, sobbing quietly into my Super Mario stuffed doll. For a few weeks, this has been happening every day. I am mostly not sure why. There are small rejections, and there is occasionally bad weather, but for the most part, I'm just inexplicably and debilitatingly sad a lot.
I have very little patience for other people who emote in this way. Here is how emotions should work: You feel normal. A trigger occurs (example: You wanted to have chocolate ice cream, but the ice cream store was closed). You feel sad. A friend comforts you with an encouraging phrase (example: Keep calm and carry on). You feel normal. Etcetera.
Here is how my emotions have been working lately: I feel sad. A trigger occurs (example: Some website I'd like to have publish my rambling and narcissistic writing fails to write me back promptly). A friend comforts me with an encouraging phrase. I resent the friend for thinking she can cheer me up with a dumb encouraging phrase and I descend into a shame-cycle of believing that no one could possibly understand me or my pain. I feel sadder. A trigger occurs (example: We are out of bread, and I don't want to leave the store for more bread). I get under the covers and sob into my video game-themed stuffed animals until I'm tired enough to masturbate or pass out.
Yesterday was one of those days. Eventually, the pain felt so bad that I went into the living room and sobbed onto my roommate Hannah's shoulder. I sobbed and sobbed until Hannah looked like she'd been standing in the rain for a while. And then Hannah said, "You know, you've just got to love yourself as unconditionally as you love other people." I thought, I don't love other people unconditionally. And then I realized that maybe therein lay a problem.
In the end, only three things matter. One of them is how much you loved. Loving is painful and emptying and scary. Loving implies vulnerability. Self-love is especially difficult, because you cannot hide from yourself, or tell yourself convincing lies to justify the shitty things you do. You love anyway. You love despite the inevitable pain and the way the love is bound to change over time and the fear that fills you because of what has happened in the past. You love through all of that, because how much you loved is one of those three things that matter.
Another thing that matters in the end according to The-Buddha-as-George-Takei (whom I am attributing this quote to) is how gently you lived. That means that while you may take the reigns off your love and do it with a certain amount of recklessness, you must also be gentle with it. You must be gentle with your friends, you must be gentle with the people who have hurt you. You have to be gentle with plants and ducks and spiders and even Fundamentalist Christians. You even have to be gentle with people who are not so gentle with you, because meanness comes from fear. That is not to say don't sometimes be angry. That is not to say don't stand up for what you believe in. It is only to say that as you move through your life, be as kind as you can be. Including -- especially -- to yourself.
And the third thing (maybe the hardest thing) that matters in the end, is how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.
That one has been so difficult for me lately.
I want to hold onto these ghosts of ideas of the way I once believed my life should be. I am grasping at them, even though they are not really there. I obsessively look backward, trying to figure out what went wrong, and wondering what I could have done to repair the damage.
There is nothing you can do to repair the damage. You can only look forward, and let go.
The sayings that belong on magnets only mean as much as you need them to mean in any given moment. It's possible that at times, we all need life to be easy enough that it can be encapsulated in a three-item list. We might even call that "wisdom" from time to time. I know I do.
At some point, I've got to get out of bed, face the sun, and let go of the might-have-should-have-could-have-done-better voices that echo in my head all day. The key is to just picture George Takei. And then keep calm and carry on.