Do you know how most people go through bookstores? They stroll around, picking up copies of paperbacks printed with eye-catching colors, flipping them over and reading endless little excerpts of novel after novel after novel until they find a few that they like enough to drop fifteen dollars for. They walk away, little plastic bag in hand, ready for a rewarding reading experience that will supplement their lives and provide them with a few hours of entertainment on that week’s next rainy day. They probably plan on being productive afterwards, when they finish said books, and eventually they will return to that holy store and do the same thing over again. Rinse and repeat.
I go about it a little differently, because I like sad books. No, actually, not even sad books. I like life-ruiners; you know, the kinds of books that leave you crumpled up on the bathroom floor, sobbing so hard that your roommate throws a towel over your head to muffle your scream-cries. I used to feel somewhat slighted at this whole towel situation… but then I realized that when you allow fictional characters to emotionally eviscerate the tattered remains of your soul more than once per week, people get a little tired of hearing about it. I’ll actively look up lists of the most depressing books ever written; in fact, this week I picked up a novel for the sole reason that someone once told me that their heart did not break because of the book, but it shattered.
Anyways, I’d like to take this time to point out that I’m affirmatively not a masochist. I read these kinds of books because I think that they have a lot to teach you about strength, resilience, grief, love, and every other aspect of this wondrous human condition. But perhaps the most important thing that I’ve learned, a lesson told through thousands of characters and plotlines and mirrored so intensely in real life that understanding it first through fiction is probably one of the only ways you’ll ever really wrap your mind around it, is this: the world does not give a shit. It really doesn’t. This earth, and the mystical rules that govern it, do not care about how much you love someone, how much they love you, how long you’ve been together, and how much more time you’re meant to have. In one instant, everything that has ever mattered to you can disappear. In one instant, you can disappear.
Can we just take a moment to acknowledge how terrifying that is? How heart-wrenching and isolating and seemingly sad?
Seemingly. Because life is all about perception, isn’t it? I’ll admit, the first few (hundred) times I felt the full weight of this realization, it had always been through literature, and it had always ended with the same multi-hour combination of tears, existential crises, and hyperventilation. And then one day, after the dust had settled and I had completed my cyber-stalking of the mildly sadistic author (I like to memorize the faces of all those who enjoy dumping extreme amounts of pain into the lives of other people… it’s a habit that really helps with my dating life), I had a little realization: yeah, the world doesn’t care.
But I’m here, and I’m breathing, and I’ve spent the last few hours of my life so preoccupied with whatever particular character that their story may as well have been my own, it was that ingrained into my mind. I care. And if I can care, then anyone can care, and anyone who cares is doing so because they’re holding on to an idea that means something to them, be it love, or change, or the concept of loss. Even more, the book didn’t need me to care; I just happened to stumble upon it. It was worth caring about to begin with. So the world doesn’t care, but then again, it was never up to words to change the rules of gravity, never an obligation for stories to give shade to the sun. And the world is not my world, because my world is something personal, something built. Yeah, sometimes my world may care a little bit too much, but I think we can all agree that that’s better than not at all.
Some people read sad books and they come away with the idea that they have to live every moment to the fullest, to ‘carpe diem’ with such a voracity that when the time comes for them to take their last breath, they don’t have the energy to draw it in anyway; this is a fair conclusion to come to. I view this as a widening of life, a collecting of experiences so adventurous and vast and fiercely independent that if memoirs were made on maps, there would be no corner of the globe left untouched.
Personally, I want a deep life; I want layers to the legacy that I leave, and I want to care so fiercely that I bring a fundamental change into the lives of other people as a result. There is a quote in Fahrenheit 451 (a great novel, and not a life-ruiner, if you’re actually looking for something to enjoy) that explains this: “‘It doesn’t matter what you do,’ he said, ‘so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.’”
Being forgotten is more than just a common fear; it’s a common reality. And that’s a scary thing to start to understand. But it’s not as if you can’t do anything about it… you can mean something to someone. You can mean something to yourself. Just as importantly, you can allow other people to mean something to you. You can care about them, and you can be cared for in return, and you can leave any impact that you choose as long as you cultivate it and work for it and earn it. This world may not care, but the worlds that matter to you will, and at the very least, that should be enough.
It’s not impossible. You can mean something. Odds are that you already do.