Life in High Definition
One thing about getting a brain-cancer diagnosis — especially when your docs are throwing words like “incurable” around — is that your priorities immediately start shifting like so much overhead luggage in flight. Here’s one totally banal result of that process for me: I now own a nice flat-screen television with HD satellite service.
I went out with my buddy Dave Noland and paid cash for the TV Saturday at Best Buy. Then he and my brother Brian helped me hook it up and figure out how to use it. Then we got my Direct TV satellite service switched over to HD on Monday, and our first appointment with it was the Bills-Patriots game (which the Bills stupidly threw away in the last two minutes).
This is not a purchase I had very high on my priority list. My 12-year-old TV set was perfectly adequate for most of my single-dude viewing needs — which are pretty much limited to sports, news and movies. Someday the old box will crap out, I always figured, and I’ll just get one of the new ones then and that will be that. (In other words, I’ll let random fate make the decision for me). But what the hell, I thought last week. I’m doing a lot of lounging around the house these days because of this brain-cancer gig. I’m too fatigued to finish that new translation of War and Peace that I’ve been chipping away at for months. And we’re coming up on the meatiest part of the annual sports cycle — with baseball headed into the playoffs, pro and college football just getting fired up and the NBA season right around the corner. And with the World Cup coming up next year, there are all these great qualifying matches going on. Watching sports on TV is something I enjoy. So why not just splurge and enjoy it all in its full, state-of-the-art glory? Wake Up And Live. Now. In my own mindless way.
Buying a TV set not a decision I’m particularly proud of, as if it were some sort of profound accomplishment in its own right. As I indicated above with my use of the word “banal,” this post has nothing to do with the wisdom or substance of the actual choices we make in life. I wish I could be writing about how my diagnosis has inspired me to spend the rest of my days helping the children of Calcutta. Instead, in this instance, it has inspired me by one measure to become an even fatter and uglier consumer in what is already the planet’s fattest and ugliest economy.
Yet I’m sticking to my guns, anyway. This sudden, strange purchase has everything to do with having brain cancer. For most middle-class Americans, it would amount to nothing more than a simple, unremarkable transaction, devoid of any larger meaning. But it’s definitely not something the ‘old me’ would have gone out and done at the drop of a hat on a rainy Saturday morning. My action is instead the result of a weird signal emanating from inside of some new version of me, and I’m hoping there is a way to translate it into something that’s meaningful going forward. So maybe the point of this post (if there is one) is less about the quality of our choices in life than it is about when we make them and why.
So many people go through life not noticing or caring that their happiness as a human being has become encrusted and burdened down by their immediate sense of economic obligation — whether as a worker for a company, as a pursuer of a “career”, as a provider for a family, as a planner for retirement or simply as a credit-happy consumer in pursuit of material satisfaction for themselves. What’s lost in this encrusting process is the essence of life, itself: That’s whatever it is that fulfills you and makes you happy right now, day in and day out, regardless of your economic circumstances. Whether that is spending time with your family or your neighbors or your imagination or your religion or your art or your favorite recreational activity or whatever. You don’t need anyone to tell you what your ultimate source of happiness might be. I just don’t think that, whatever it is, it necessarily has to be obscured by or in conflict with what you spend most of your energy on daily. But for alot of us, it is.
My problem, until recently, is that I’ve always been hooked on the popular drug called Tomorrow. Like many folks, I’ve always worried less about what life is like today than what it will be like in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. What kind of job will I have? Where will I live? Will I have financial security? Will I have considered my life a professional success? Will my family still love me or will I have alienated them all? Who will my friends be? Worry. Worry. Worry. The saddest thing about all of those questions is that the answers to most of them are right in front of us today. Lots of us just don’t like the answers as they currently stand, so we have a built-in mechanism for discounting the unsatisfactory answers. That mechanism is Tomorrow, the drug preferred by all “responsible” adults. So as a result we get “My job sucks and my career is stalled and I’m miserable (but that’s okay because I’ll just get a better job and be happy soon)”; we get “I hate where I live (but that’s okay because I’ll just move somewhere else and be happy in a few years)”; we get “I’ve always wanted to visit that country, but can’t afford it right now” (but that’s okay, because I’m socking all my money away into a 401(k) plan and will start playing golf every day and being happy when I’m old); we get “My family seems cold and distant and unhappy because I’m not paying enough attention to them (but that’s okay, because I’m working hard to provide for their future and we’ll all be happy someday. Won’t we?”). So many of us are chasing Tomorrow when we hold something far more valuable in our hands: Today. But what are we supposed to do with Today?
Since July 24, I’ve started to care a lot more about today than tomorrow. If that means blowing through all of my financial resources to pay my medical bills and enable me to do other things that make me happy with what life I have left to live, then so be it — I’m not worried. If it means becoming a rare, long-term survivor of a Glioblastoma Multiforme tumor and still being alive 10, 15 or 20 years from now and being flat broke, bagging groceries — I don’t care. None of that stuff that I used to spend so much time worrying about matters anymore. I see now that Tomorrow was equal parts distraction and abstraction, and all the time I have spent worrying about it Today has been wasted time.
I was always somewhat dismissive of people who preached about living in the moment, seizing every day as if it were our last day to live and all that jazz. I figured they were just ditzy and that was just their excuse to live irresponsibly. It’s constantly being pounded into our heads that the big problem with our consumer society today is that we place too much emphasis on instant gratification and do too little thinking about the future. Isn’t that the case? So isn’t it then true that having whole flocks of people “living in the moment” is part of that broader problem because it is the ultimate expression of and justification for instant gratification?
Well, yes and no. Yes, it is true if we insist on filing the phrase Being Happy Now under the subcategory of Instant Gratification, which is itself filed under the broader category of Grasping At Straws. But no, it is not true if we file that phrase where it rightly belongs, which is under the subcategory of Breathing under the broader category of Living. That has nothing to do with being a consumer. I’m not at all saying that going out and blowing cash on a new television in order to watch sports in high-definition should be anyone’s ultimate measure of living in the moment and being happy. That’s just what it happened to signify for me in my current, couch-stricken state. I’m hoping that once I get up, moving around and exercising again, I’ll start to apply the lesson I’ve learned to more meaningful areas of existence. Today, a stupid TV set. Tomorrow, Calcutta.
Meanwhile, to all you people who have known this old secret forever and have already been living your lives accordingly, God bless you.
And while we’re at it, God bless Bob Marley, too. He was singing about living life in high definition way back before the TV people invented it: http://tinyurl.com/coyb8f