Why—and other questions that get us out of bed each morning


Lately, like any good existentialist—say Camus and Kierkegaard—I’ve been wondering what makes me, me?  What is my purpose, great gift, uniqueness? Why am I here? What difference does my life make? These, of course, are personal applications of the universal question, What makes us human?

We all need answers. Sometimes these pesky questions make us nervous. They itch and irritate, raise welts of disillusionment, cynicism and despair. We force them underground and go shopping. Or we stay mindlessly busy. Some of us eat or drink too much.

My brother drank. In fact, he drank himself to death two months shy of his 50th birthday. He left no heritage, no legacy from a successful career, no wife and no children. I look back at his life and wonder why it mattered. Why was he here? What was his purpose, his uniqueness, his gift? Driven by my need to understand the differences between us, I wrote a memoir about his life, how he failed and I succeeded—at least on the surface of things.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about failure. After receiving more than 20 rejection letters to queries and proposals shopping the memoir, I went to my bed and wept. Body Beautiful, renamed Lucky Girl, Guilty Woman, had required countless revisions and had taken eight years of my life. With the sting of rejection still burning my eyes, I attended readings by friends who’d been recently published. Ouch! Where was the glory?

Suddenly, I recalled angry words I’d wanted to hurl at my brother when I overheard him complaining that I was spoiled: “Do you know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed and alone?”

Immediately, I caught myself. Of course Bruce knew what it was like to feel overwhelmed and alone. His entire life was a demonstration of perseverance in the face of unfair disadvantages: severe learning disabilities and ADHD with no available resources in Louisville, Kentucky, in the late 1950s and ’60s.

All of us must learn from failure.  To some, my brother Bruce’s death represents ultimate failure. What can be done for a life that’s gone? But here’s the thing: Bruce teaches me daily. He teaches me courage and perseverance, compassion and patience, tolerance and forgiveness. I learn to respect myself and take time to process failure.

In the last weeks of his life, Bruce and I rediscovered each other. He fussed and joked and sang and quipped. One day he ordered me about his hospital room like a construction supervisor: “Throw the cups away; roll the tray table to the wall; straighten the flowers on the window sill.” He’d never been fastidious, was quite the opposite, in fact. But during those final moments, one constant in our lives held sway, inviolable and indestructible: Bruce had a sister who loved him, and he loved me back.

Who am I? I am a sister, a mother, a wife. Frequently, I protest: “I’m more than this—more than the roles I fulfill!”  Nonetheless, in failure, it is these relationships that sustain me and remind me what truly matters—only this: to love one another; and to love ourselves—after rejection, and rejection, and rejection.

I still wonder about my uniqueness and whether I have a particular gift to share, so I’ll keep searching.  “Live the questions now,” said the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet.  “Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Assistant Editor Leslie Smith Townsend is a pastoral counselor in private practice.  A composite excerpt of her memoir appears in the anthology Voices of Alcoholism (The Healing Project. 2008).

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