What Matters Right Now

How my worldviews changed after the unexpected death of a loved one

7/12/20



Last May, one of my immediate family members died unexpectedly. I have more thoughts on this subject than what fits in this post, but here I’ll focus on capturing how I think it’s recently affected my views on how to live well. I hope this post is useful for anyone on a similar path or sparks a conversation between you and I about our life perspectives.


A Preface

I’m incredibly lucky to be a winner of countless existential lotteries. I was born in America with a comfortable childhood and low-pressure environment, with the promise that I could achieve whatever I wanted if I worked hard. Where my next meal or rent would come from was never something I worried about. I felt safe. As a kid, my foci were simply school, fun, and the future. Nowadays I have the time to write posts like this and try to self-actualize. I’m also extremely thankful for my current situation, in which I’m essentially finding my fancy among innumerable amazing paths in life.

I mention this for two reasons: first, context is supremely important when sharing stories involving someone’s personal journey. Second, when discussing mortality, appreciation for what you already have is an activity that shouldn’t be considered an unveiled afterthought, reflection, or silver lining. It’s the other way around: appreciation should be the larger frame of reference, and loss only a part of it. This shift in reference helps us remember to not take anything for granted. It also results in a healthier processing of loss and grief. This detail is sometimes hidden in our daily activities when our hubris forgets we only live on borrowed time.


Who This is For

I’ve written this primarily for people in early 20s and late teens. In this age group, I noticed that a certain mental landscape (that I had myself) is quite common: where expectations of our future have been affixed rather rigidly around a certain “path” of an expected career, lifestyle, or set of experiences. Where our behavior is averse to vagueness and we’ve only known mostly clear tracks. Where, when balancing between different choices, the uncertainty of one scares us–even though we secretly wish we were more attracted to it. Where we perceive ourselves as achievers or not, described by various details–at least, the ones we’ve learned to use so far. Where we haven’t thought much about the power of alternatives to the smooth sailing ahead. Where our foundations might not have been shaken or tested before. Where external influences (whether it be via society, peers, parents, self, or chance) seem to have created an unbreakable inertia that we think limits how powerful our decisions are. Where the mindset of taking youth for granted or “the right time will come in the future” have been central to our lived experience, rather than the immediacy of Now.

Thinking about tragedy and appreciation gave me huge perspective shifts from the above mindsets, which I now recognize were the factors that most limited me, but I couldn’t clearly identify at the time. If any of these were striking, I hope this is useful for you.


I. When Minding the Shot Clock
II. Meaningful Uncertainty
III. Only After the Jump
IV. Hard Decisions, Easy Life
V. The Most Important Part




I. When Minding The Shot Clock

Losing someone close to you forces you to more sharply acknowledge how everything around us has a finite time, including people, objects, and experiences. This new lens irreversibly morphs your perception.

You first notice the physical world a little differently. Even though I was a reasonable follower of minimalism even before the tragedy, I found that my feelings towards material items had shrunk even more. Paying attention to life being short makes you prioritize people and experiences, and how “things” are just that, and no more.

I didn’t expect that this feeling would also threaten to infect sentimental items–which should normally be spared–as collateral damage. You might have an intrusive thought about happy family portraits eventually depicting faces whose names nobody knows. Rings or lockets symbolizing a moment of love or dedication will eventually be recognized as special by precisely no one. I realized this when saying goodbye to things I had never thought of discarding–piles of the deceased’s clothes, an iPhone contact, their favorite shoes and gear, a shirt which matched one of mine. But this grounds you in a way, and paves a path for you to believe in meaning and sentiment even more than before. The proxies are devalued and the illusion dissipates. You remember what it’s only ever been about. You cherish the people and the memories, with an urgent sense of presence and love while you have the opportunity. I’d trade a thousand sentimental items for one more second together.

The mental adjustment also involves old interpersonal habits and family traditions. For example, I occasionally find myself unsure about some detail that the deceased knew about. My mind jumps halfway along its decision to reach for my phone to send a text, or open my mouth to call their name–only to realize in midair that that thought now leads to nowhere. And what of expecting upcoming marriages, holidays, and other celebrations that “should have happened” together with them? We seem to forget that “funeral” has always deserved its place in that list of “should have happened’s” and we can only hope life deals us a hand where that card is near the end. For these “should have happened together” events, it’s important to recognize that this “should” is just a playful figment of words that humans have assigned meaning to, and we should not give the “lost opportunity” too strong a role in our grief. Such events have caused me as much forward-looking excitement in the past, as they do a sinking feeling now–and I am thankful for both. It’s occasionally dizzily crushing, but always humbling and invigorating. I’m looking forward to thrilling milestones ahead of me, with their many exciting details I’m currently unaware of–but I do know for certain one person who won’t be there.

To move forward, we must believe that we are in exactly the situation we should be in. I am not religious, but I believe everyone can arrive at this reasoning through their preferred method. The present moments and time we do have for action become all the more important. Similar to how sports players often completely change their behavior and priorities when considering the shot clock, we should change our behavior–in the only game that matters–when we better grasp our mortality. Our time is short. Knowing that, I now love life more than ever. I know that its cause for celebration lies not in our possessions or credentials but rather in our experiences with the people we love, the emotions we feel, the senses of deeper purpose we develop, the uncertainty we face and emerge from, and being able to say, “Yes, I am living, this is what it means to be human!” through every moment till the end.


“Yeah, this ain’t a rant – I’m just passionate
The God that I believe in don’t make accidents

So God, while you watch my latest verse
I know I never go to church
I just pray this ain’t the year I have to lay in a hearse

It’s July thirty-first of two-thousand-seventeen
I’m in a studio in Indy wearing Nike’s and some jeans
And I’m broke than a bitch, drive an old Mazda 6
But it’s better than a Coupé, ‘cause I can fit all my friends”

– Kid Quill, Soapbox




II. Meaningful Uncertainty

Our experiences cost us time, so now I ask myself “Is this how I should be living right now? Is this what matters right now?” more often. Witnessing death for the first time as a more mature individual put these questions front and center. The way it affected my mind was the easy part: I began to internalize that life is too short to not be lived in a fulfilling manner. The more difficult part was figuring out how to consciously prioritize fulfillment in my actions. Obviously there will never be a clear way, but despite this difficulty it is an important internal conversation.

This subject of “fulfillment” sometimes turns people off because it is labelled as “corny.” But I suspect this shying away is often because this labelling of “corniness” is easier than the leaps of faith and mental perserverance required to rigorously question yourself. It’s easier to not do anything, assuage yourself that things are fine, and call these topics “lame,” than questioning your inertia.

We also unfortunately suffer from a societal illness where we enjoy lamenting our desire to find our fulfillment, share words about this struggle, and perhaps get ~Internet points~, but forget to walk the talk once nobody’s looking. Thus we subconsciously pattern-match its repeated appearance and believe it is never fruit-yielding, and this repeated falling-short-of-action seeps through our cultural psyche. I’m certainly not above this either, and bringing myself to take the jump is still a routine challenge I face and fight with different goals every week. So, I want this essay to function as more than an emotional little meta-critique: it want it to galvanize, catalyze, decree a verdict. I want this post’s reflections to shine an all-exposing light on my own execution of these ideals now and in the future. Down the line, I’ll be rereading this post that was written in a time of emotional intensity, and then see if my past thoughts might be effectively calling out my future self for inaction. We must actively make those decisions and take a stand. I invite the reader to join a similar exercise (perhaps with writing down your own version of a self-evaluation for fulfillment).

The discussion of decision-making for fulfillment (whatever it means to you) always requires a discussion of uncertainty. Because if the uncertainty of various options in a specific decision did not exist, it wouldn’t be a notable decision you’d be consciously thinking about or weighing. You’d easily choose an option and move to the next decision, until eventually the ones that are conscious are the ones at your real limits of “fulfillment” x “uncertainty.” Most importantly, the events that happen at this “border” of uncertainty are what define a person. They are the most exciting, soul-crushing, rewarding, devastating, character-building, and life-imbuing events–not purely because they are uncertain, but because they are by definition the only meaningful junction for progress as each person strives forward. Your actions at this uncertainty-border are the ones that make you feel alive. They are what make us more than machines. And this is what leads us to my main point:

I believe that facing uncertainty, irrespective of the outcome, is what leads to fulfillment. It’s not a new idea, it’s the classic adage of “no risk, no reward.” But we should consciously use the word “uncertainty” instead of “risk”. The latter has a mainly negative connotation that triggers a defensive state in our decision-making. “Uncertainty” better includes the positive possibilities we strive for, and what makes life beautiful. The importance of this distinction is reflected by an aphorism from the philosopher Wittgenstein: “In most cases, the meaning of a word is its use.” The lexicon we utilize in our decision making is very important in the long run! Especially to those like me who have been extremely privileged to follow pre-set tracks, we’ve mostly heard the word “risk” as one heavily laden with negativity, and it is important we realize this unfortunate bias in our mindsets.

The promise of braving uncertainty for reward is universally compelling because it speaks relatively to each individual, rather than being an absolute appraisal of “ability” or “opportunity.” Your personal border of uncertainty already accommodates what you can’t do as well as focuses on what you can do (which is always more than you think). Furthermore, inspecting your own border challenges you to transfer things from the former category to the latter. This applies to everyone. This border is where you will grow and be more human, so uncertainty becomes an element that we should no longer run from but rather run towards. What is your border?

I’ll share my most impactful action on my uncertainty-border thus far. It was a year-long process, beginning in September 2018, that started during my second year in university. During this time, my current views on how to act for personal fulfillment began to take form. I began to realize my brain was telling myself, part observation/aspiration/instruction, the following: my own definition of human fulfillment means using my abilities and resources to improve the state of the world. I will choose as many of my activities as possible to be at my uncertainty-border for rewarding fights of growth and rebirth. I bias my actions towards jumping the well-worn path and creating a new trailhead.

But in school, I was zero for three. I felt that school’s imposed time constraints and environment wasn’t the the best choice among my actionable options because it wasn’t at my uncertainty-border. I wasn’t learning real-world skills, just doing problem sets. I wasn’t doing everything in my power to act towards truly impactful work. I wasn’t getting new challenges for my mental and emotional growth. Furthermore, I wanted to clear my head from the mimetic race for shiny internships and high-IQ bubbles of coastal elitism. I felt I was falling more out of touch with the world with each passing day.

(Note 10/3/2020: I feel that the original focus on school was just placing the locus of agency outside of myself and playing a blame game, where I myself just didn’t have the drive. Or perhaps maybe school really was incompatible with my pathway, and this was necessary? Maybe having school as a board to blame and push off of was helpful? Who knows, as reflections on the past are always imprecis. But this is what my best interpretation of my past is, and however it went down, I am thankful for how my mindsets/actions developed)

As April 2019 approached, I’d already walked up to my uncertainty-border, but not yet crossed it. I had thought about the possibility of leaving school. But I’d never done anything like it in my straight-edged life before, and I wasn’t confident if I’d actually end up doing it. School was the mental scaffold upon which all the structure in my life grew. With lexicon back then being defined with “risk” and not “uncertainty,” I felt taking a leave didn’t yet “justify” the risk, besides me simply wanting to do it to try something different from my current situation. I focused too much on what the “normal” track of education, careers, and life “should” be.

Then Death visited in early May. The effects I describe in this essay soon followed: I began to better appreciate what I had, evolve my ridiculously conservative mindview about uncertainty (especially given my already-advanaged background), and strengthen my will/sense of responsibility to make the hard decisions for my fulfillment. As these views crystallized, I debated the decision throughout the entire summer with the people I was lucky to have around me. Someone just died–was I really about to decide to make my life even “weirder”? Emotional pairs of privilege and guilt also complicated my decision making.

August came, and a few weeks before junior year started, I decided that a certain project idea I wanted to pursue was “worth” taking time off for. In reflection, it being only an idea definitely wouldn’t have satisfied my April self’s demand for justification of he “risk” of leaving school. But by August, I saw how that imaginary “bar” would have never been attainable; it would always be just beyond reach as long I was afraid of leaping clear from my anchor. I decided to trust the “uncertainty,” and I still reap the benefits of that decision to this day. My life didn’t get “weirder,” I made it a better fit for me.

Now, I look back and say “Of course you made the right decision. How obvious!” But seeing what looks like past (non-repeated) foolishness is in fact a strong indication of having undergone growth (I’ll also say more about this retroactive realization of benefits in the next section). Most importantly, I can proudly say that my decision was made where my border was at that point in time; it was the most uncertainty I had ever been in up until then.

Everybody’s uncertainty-border is different. When my grandparents on my mother’s side arrived in America penniless, fulfillment for them was hustling for double-pay graveyard shifts assembling PCBs at IBM and taking English classes at night, so that their kids could sleep without being hungry. My grandparents on my father’s side had a parallel story when they first arrived in Hong Kong. Their uncertainties were largely economic and material in nature.

My uncertainty-border is at the other end of Maslow’s thanks to my ancestors. People like me in these upper levels, when solely focused on steadily advancing our already comfortable gains, are the ones who often overlook the risk of an unfulfilled life. When we avoid encountering the uncertainty at our personal borders, we miss our chances to thrive and experience being truly human. Isn’t missing that experience the greatest risk of all? In this way, operating at our uncertainty-border becomes a goal rather than a risk.


“Lemme give you a riddle

Would you take the route more scenic
With more perils in between it?

Would you live it as you dream it
Or so other people see it?

Get the chance, would you redeem it?
Solve the myth about that phoenix

Or leave it
And settle for some shit you don’t believe in”

– Caye, Sunrise - Intro




III. Only After the Jump

People usually overestimate risk and underestimate benefits when considering actions with uncertain results. Many more positive events end up happening than people initially expect. I hypothesize that this is because we accidentally apply the same mindset towards two types of situations. The first type is procedurally risky situations with clear negative outcomes–such as drunk driving or launching a rocket in bad weather–we are absolutely right to be conservative in these cases. But the second type is vaguer, higher-level situations, such as questions about our career paths, drastic changes to our lifestyles, or leaving our comfort zones of actions or relationships. The difference is that the higher level situations have an exponentially larger possibility space, and thus a much greater potential of desirable events, or at least side-paths that will turn into positive leads, than humans naturally think. This is because, as events play out, your natural actions will bias towards seeking the positive results anyway. But you won’t encounter or be able to even imagine them until you have taken the leap. Our brains aren’t evolutionarily wired to imagine the positive elements accurately–back in the day, natural selection favored humans that didn’t wander away from the group. This was a good policy back when starvation/death was the likely outcome of unfamiliar situations, but the opposite is now true. Instead of bad surprises where we are rather powerless against the forces of nature, modern civilization now features humans as the agents with power instead. We can trust that our actions in uncertainty will lead us to good, unexpected surprises.

I can personally point to leaving school as the root cause of me meeting a new close friend, discovering one of my now-favorite books, growing closer with three previously-distant extended family members, and experiencing at least four major events of self development. These are all only a few examples among many others, and I’m confident I wouldn’t have experienced them otherwise. Most importantly, I had zero inkling of all of these beforehand. That project idea I left school for ended up failing, but I hardly even think about that now! There’s of course no counterfactual of what would have happened had I not left school, but my takeaway is: I took the jump at my uncertainty border at the time, and life has been fulfilling–in many ways more unexpected than not.

I’ve also observed this pattern in some friends around me: three switched industries while nearing graduation. Four left behind established material success for a jump towards uncertain promise. Four others are taking an utterly uncharted path vastly different from their pasts, peers, and surroundings. My individual conversations with each of them have all included both people expressing gratitude for unexpected events caused by our jumps. Of course, I’d be intellectually dishonest if I pretended that we can remove only one tail of the distribution–we have all also experienced hardship and failure, many in our original goals that we made the initial jump for. But we face these head-on and continue to rise. Each time with more happy memories, unexpected wins, new goals, and a greater sense of fulfillment we’ve picked up along the way.

If you are reading this right now, this serendipitous pattern of adventurous, unexpected growth can almost certainly become true for you as well, if only you take the chance. You won’t find anything if you only take the gradual steps; it has to be a leap from your anchor. You can start discovering this for yourself by being willing to take on greater uncertainty than you would have done before. Trust that a great part of your story, beyond your imagination, is waiting on the other side to be written by you. But you’ll find it only after the jump.


“And if I knew back then what I know right now
I’d be better than I’ve ever been, better than I’ve ever been

You ever wonder what it all really means?
Heart full of dreams, I know I’mma do it, get it by any means
Serving food for the thought like it’s rock to the fiends
I said this shit for years boy, this life ain’t what it seems

Sayin’ that you can’t just solidifies that you never will
Said you would, said you could, “but you ain’t got the skill”
You gotta climb the highest mountain to master the hill
You gotta climb over your ego to master your will

Gave up on your dreams for a suit and a pension
God damn, I hope you’re here for the intervention
You say you would if you had the money, don’t make me mention
It don’t cost nothin’ but time for you to pay attention”
– Logic, Never Been




IV. Hard Decisions, Easy Life

If you’ve found something impactful from this post so far, maybe there’s something you want to do but have been hesitant about. You might even want to want it more, so that you didn’t have to be so torn and would just do it. I’ve noticed a common pattern in speaking with a few people in similar scenarios (same thing was true for me): they start seeking advice from others. Perhaps it’s a subconscious desire to avoid having to take responsibility, especially if pre-laid tracks in earlier parts of your life have more often arrived at success than not. But as we move beyond basic children’s education, “procedural” tasks as described before, and perhaps basic human morals, it’s evident that following obvious tracks don’t promise us fulfillment given how “finding happiness” as adults is still a topic disagreed upon. “Happiness” is probably as imprecise a word as “interesting”; it can only be defined with other things anyways.

Luckily, fully exercising our responsibility of directing our lives is a rewarding path for finding fulfillment. Facing life head-on, committing to your decided risks, and learning more about yourself along the way rewards you with an unmistakable sense of personal agency and meaning. This feeling, that you now schedule your dates with Destiny, gives you an unmatchable exhilaration when you open your eyes each morning.

The greatest tests of our character (and our willingness to rise to the occasion) come at fork-in-the-road decisions. These are the ones where you need to throw away optionality, enact your professed principles, and take a stance in life. These are the hard decisions, and often the hardest dimension of such decisions is when something about you wants to go in a different direction than what is “normal.” In that case, this post is here to support your leap of faith. Know that your best path is not the one that has been smoothed over by other people’s footsteps. Feel free to ignore advice from people who believe the opposite or haven’t taken leaps themselves. Your path is uncertain and unique. And while you cannot say that one person’s path is more valid than another person’s, the uniqueness does make it extremely likely and natural for some people around you to disagree with your decision, and you theirs. A potentially helpful way to think about it: everyone is crazy, and “normal” in society just refers to a coincidentally common kind of crazy.

Because of this natural variation between people, if you don’t have any uncertainty in your path, it’s actually probably a sign you will most likely regret your actions. It’s more than likely that you missed opportunities to explore your unique potential. There’s obviously no proof for this idea, but it’s worth considering. So don’t be afraid to take advantage of tough fork-in-the-road decisions with uncertainty; they are symptoms of growth and thriving. A relevant adage here, this one with playfully flexible meanings, is “hard decisions, easy life; easy decisions, hard life.”

It is important to reaffirm that we don’t need to feel absolutely confident to take a leap of faith. What you do need, though, is a confidence in positive uncertainty. This discernment is a careful balance of mental clarity and self-awareness that grows more savvy with each use, and you become more familiar with your own mind and story overtime. Self-questioning is a good thing. We don’t mean 24/7, mentally paralyzing doubt, but rather intermittent and intense (sometimes in a sudden fashion) high-level self critiques. These critiques are then best paired with a willingness to jump into action or shift mental gears in pursuit of personal fulfillment. Debate is fine, but remember it’s nothing without striving forward boldly.

“Fulfillment” also does not necessarily refer to (but also does not preclude) happiness, certainty, and a comfortable coast. It can include all emotions, such as conflict, fear, and growth. What matters is you rise to the challenge and undergo uncertainty. One of my favorite quotes is “Bravery is feeling fear but doing it anyway.” It is relevant here if you substitute the word “bravery” for words like “living,” “persistence,” and “growth,” and the word “fear” for words like “uncertainty,” “failure,” and “discomfort”; trying this in various scenarios with different words of your choice can help change negative or conflicted thinking into a positive, accommodating, and nimble mindset as we live for the life we want.

So, with the responsibility of our lives in hand, how do we understand an event like a loved one passing? Does it translate to us deciding to have a “good” or “bad” life? I’ve personally found a fruitful experience in being thankful for hard situations as opportunities for growth, and thinking of my life and all its experiences as “good.” My definition of “good” here is slightly different from its regular usage. In this case, there’s no counterfactual to compare to since there’s only one version of reality. It’s just good by itself in its very nature and existence. Life is good, and I’m making it good in my own way.


“What are you doing with yourself?
I feel life is less of a movie and more of a novel
You are not the actor you are the author
Any moment start a new chapter

Choose your own adventure
Venture into uncharted waters
Be honest with yourself and others
Besides that, do whatever the fuck you wanna

Happiness is more than smiles
Sometimes it means you cry
Because you hurt because you love
If not you’re numb and then you die inside”

– Sol, Happiness




V. The Most Important Part

The last thought I’ll mention is what I now understand to be the most important part of death. It isn’t the fact that you die. It’s your death’s effect on the lives of the loved ones you leave behind. The deceiving thing is that this effect may initially seem to be something static and unchanging, simply a fact in the background, more distant with each year. But the truth is, as the people in your life think of you, you will forever remain a dynamic, compounding influence on their behavior, mindset, and thus lives over time. Everyone’s present always includes their past. My memory of the deceased, their influence on me, and the values they espoused are dynamic components that I will grow alongside with, pass on to others, and remember until my own death, no matter how many years have passed since May 2019. For me, their legacy is embodied by the traits of patience, curiosity, and calm.

Consider if this responsibility of compounding influence might move you to change anything. Everyone is blessed with this responsibility. It might be more empathy, more love, more companionship, listening more, or something else. Take the time. Do something that could brighten someone’s day and possibly their life, knowing your impact remains long after you’re gone. Contribute positivity where people might not even be aware of your work. Did you use your talents, time, and resources to make life better for others? What have you left behind? What will you leave behind?

Whatever you think you need to do–for yourself, others, or for the world–you should start that today, because your window of opportunity will always close before you think it should.


“I was born dying, but I was born to be someone
No time to lose, I’m only here for so long
My days have a number, but numbers only matter so much
Right now I’m breathing, I feel like I was born to love, oh

This is what I want to be remembered for
This is what I want to be remembered for
Everything else – you can set it on fire

I want to still be standing when it falls apart
I want to be a shoulder for the broken heart
It’s what I want to be remembered for

And when the day is finally here
To leave behind these broken years
I want my family by my side
I hope they’ll know how hard I’ve tried
To live in love, to love in depth
Let wonder take away my breath
To give until there’s nothing more
This is what I want to be remembered for”

– Colony House, Remembered For




Thanks for reading.

Brian







Notes

It might be hard to maneuver through uncertainty when it’s your first time encountering so many possibilities. Just keep going and your life will be great. This uncertainty, including its referenceonceptions, mistakes, and growth, are just part of the great experience. Keep true to that and nothing can stop you.

Below are more recommendations, strictly coming from things I’ve done and seen along just my own journey so far, to avoid fake counterfactual “What I Wish I Knew” advice and to add nuance (the most important part). As such, the main central component is “School”, given my own background. And to reiterrate, all reflections on one’s past is prone to bias, misattributed causes, potentially completely inverted impressions, etc. But I do think that speaking with somebody who took a gap year helped “normalize” taking time off in my mind, even for just a quarter, and now I’m comfortably a full dropout, which was the main instigator of everything else so far from May 2019 to currently July 2020.

The first few bullets below are mostly university-related. The rest are more general action frameworks that have governed my past ~1 year of life. So I hope this reaches the 1 person for whom this is actionably useful rather than a thousand spectators that just kinda enjoyed reading. I’d love to talk, send a message.

School

Things to Do

General