I saw the Facebook post on a January morning when the winter chill was seeping through my bedroom window. I landed in the moment suddenly as my mind focused and my body froze with dread at the realization that someone I’d admired for years had been diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. Though we hadn’t communicated in a while, I followed his work from afar, inspired by his commitment to reducing intergroup conflict in some of the most tenuous areas of the world. As my own interests in psychology, neuroscience, and spirituality developed, I began to recognize the unique way he approached the study of peace. He believes in and advocates for the power of our shared humanity and universal empathy as a way to bridge seemingly infinite divides. I always felt reassured knowing that this person I knew only briefly nearly 20 years ago was out there seeking to help the world understand itself a little better.
I opened his page on CaringBridge, a web platform I had not visited since the injury of a childhood friend several years ago. I wondered how many posts had been written since then, how many tears shed. I read through the pages. The journal entries, steeped in a wisdom that only comes from a life lived in deep self-reflection, were alive with joy, humor, sadness, and bound together by pervasive equanimity.
“Triumph Divorced from Score” was the title of the most recent entry, a nod to a rugby game he played years ago. The point, to my understanding, was that anchoring to our purpose, aligning intention with action, and playing our heart out results in an infinitely more meaningful experience than any “win” or outcome. To orient towards one’s own death with examined intention and a clear and open mind, one that acknowledges and welcomes grief as part of the whole, creates a journey filled with meaning. This is the triumph. The final outcome, whether it be the score of a rugby game or death, has already been released. The game will be played for the moment and not for the win. Looking through this lens is both a good way to live and a good way to die.
What is it about death that makes the day-to-day worries fall away? Facing the immediacy of our mortality—or of those we love—snaps us out of our fascination with the meaningless. The mind’s preoccupation with the unimportant becomes laughable. Maybe death serves as a reminder, jolting us out of our constant state of forgetting what really matters. Death interrupts our chase for the next job, the next apartment, and the next nod of approval from those around us. How did we wind up buying into these predetermined social values, the consumerism beyond our needs and commitment beyond our means?
The Western culture we live in is rooted in fallacy. Achieve, do, use, buy, throw out! We often move through this cycle without a passing thought of our impact on others and the world. If we have money there is no need for reciprocity, or at least no need for the human connection when exchange occurs in non-monetary ways. It is acceptable, even admired, when we wordlessly thrust our credit card at the cashier while on a business call. She must have a lucrative career. She must be so happy. The thought passed across my mind as I processed the transaction and placed her purchases in a bag. I neglected to question the foundation of my assumption.
Maybe our constant pursuit of the next best thing has to do with the fear of acknowledging that the moment is all we have. Is this really it? Focusing on future outcomes provides the promise that there is more, some future scenario where we will be happy. And it’s this attachment to outcomes that pulls us out of the present moment. I heard a quote when I first began a meditation practice: “the future is neither here nor guaranteed.” The future only exists in the mind. And while the mind creates a future to which we cling, our attention is diverted from the very moment in front of us. We miss opportunities for connection—to ourselves, to others, to our environment—because we fail to recognize the insidious nature of the mind’s games.
Recognizing the tendencies of the mind is difficult to do. Our minds adapted to ensure our survival, to plan and execute, and to be sensitive to our place in society by navigating complicated social dynamics. We live in fear of others’ thoughts and judgments of us. We think about ourselves more than anyone else, and especially more than anyone is thinking of us. Each of us is the star of our own show. If only we could remember that everyone is preoccupied with their own story of self, building up an identity from which to feel safe, not recognizing that true happiness is realized only when we tear these identities down.
Deconstructing identities may seem counterintuitive. Labels like “college graduate,” “UC employee,” and “graduate student” have been sources of pride for me. They denote social capital, something to be strived for… right? But they can also become sources of self-importance, arrogance, and justification for placing one’s humanity above another’s. In this way, labels are like costumes, they cloak our most vulnerable, naked selves. They give us the confidence to present ourselves to society. Sometimes we take pride in the costumes we wear. Most times, we pine for the ones we’ve yet to put on. The future is neither here nor guaranteed. Tomorrow I, or anyone of us, could visit the doctor and come back with a diagnosis of stage 4 brain cancer. What kind of life have we lived? Or were we only living for the next moment?
This man I knew all those years ago is choosing to triumph in the now rather than win the future. It’s time to follow his lead and engage a little differently. Let’s put down the doing and take off the costumes. It won’t be easy—we’ve worn them for so long that it’s difficult to see where the costume ends and our skin begins. But if we look closely we may start to see the holes or how they never quite fit us right in the first place. Where we place our attention is a choice, and I choose this moment.