When I was 20 I left home for the first time. I packed up almost everything I had into two duffle bags, and I hopped over to the cold plains of Iowa to spend my next year. It was here where I led my community revitalization team across the midwest for the next 11 months, and here where I tested out the new self I had been working on for a year.
I wanted to be perfect, or at least seen as perfect, so when others began sharing their personal stories of tragedy and resilience, I kept quiet. I spent my time in sweaters with self help books strewn around. I smiled and said “fantastic” as much as possible. And I refused to let any pain seep through the cracks of this newly formed me.
I laugh now looking back, because I was just trying to be liked. I tried so hard to be someone that people could look up to, that I became a falsified image of a sheltered optimist. I had peers sneer at me that I never knew suffering. I had coworkers joke that I was a picket fenced-raised suburban youth, and I was thrilled. I made it, I thought. No one could see the damage that was within me, and I was proud.
When I had my team, I would sprinkle stories about myself into the 3 day van trips, or across the long grueling days in a Louisiana fall. I would start with innocent ones, like my time on the football field in highschool, the time I won homecoming, or the days I would spend trying to make non-lethal bombs in my friend’s backyard. Then occasionally, I would tell a story about my family growing up, or my brother, or the senior year of highschool and their ears would perk up in a manner I didn’t often receive as “sweater Jason”.
Over the course of the year, I told my whole life story to these ears: from birth, to rebirth, to now. Many didn’t care, but one person in particular often joked that my life was so cliche that it should have been on a television show. She said the ups and downs of my highschool years, from varsity football, to winning homecoming with my girlfriend, to losing all of my friends and becoming an outcast, were essentially hand sculpted into a story-book theme. I absolutely hated this, because, as I convinced myself, I was a statistical anomaly who overcome insurmountable odds to be where I was.
All of this is a humorous story to say that by fall that year I found myself with a dying need to write out what was my life story up to that point. So, in a small house on the east side of Lafayette, Louisiana, I began what is now a 55 page Google doc. I’ll tell you one thing: it is pretty bad. THis was my first experiment with writing, and, as can be seen from these essays, I still have a lot of work to do. Regardless, I sat down for hours across a 2 year period and scribed out almost everything I could remember, divided into 15 chapters. The first chapter though, I titled: I Only Knew What Life Was For Me. And the first line I opened with was a quote from Norman Cousins: “Death is not the greatest loss in life, the greatest loss is what dies inside of us while we live”.
I stumbled across the quote at 18 years of age, when I was first thrust into the social outcast role. This quote sat as the screensaver on my phone for a year, because it seemed so true. I felt so dead inside, so hurt that this was who I became. So angry at the world for turning me into this. I accepted that death would be less of a loss than living life as if you were already dead. I realized that all the pieces of my that I enjoyed where killed off by a cruel existence: my innocence, my trust, my carefree attitude, my capacity for love, etc.
Obviously, I was a bitter, heartbroken 18 year old, so take all of that with a grain of salt. But now, after re-reading those lines years later. I see the truth in it. Death is just another phase of life. Marcus Aurelius wrote that, “Fear not death, for death is just change and change is Nature’s delight.” But the hardening on one’s soul while they age, the torture of one’s youthful innocence while time passes? That is something to fear. That must be the greatest loss.
Look who we become? Look who I became. Look who I am. I sculpted a whole new identity for fear of what people who think if they saw who I really was. There’s the death of my self-confidence. I question, and juxtapose, and dwell on issues with my loving girlfriend. There’s the death of my trust. I see malevolence and evil within every step of the world, and understand the freezing water that sits under the ice. There’s the death of my love. I think and rethink as if I am a prisoner to thoughts. There’s the death of my freedom.
Who do we become in the name of survival? We harden, and we fear. We fear spending money. We fear getting fat, We fear losing stability. We fear rejection, or pain, or anything that makes us question this shaky foundation we have built our lives on, so we let the parts of us that we once so much loved die, and we do it in the name of growing up.
Death is just a phase of life, it isn’t loss. Loss is dying while we live. It is losing our innocence, our capacity to trust, to love. It is losing our resilience, our willingness to fail. It is killing our freedom, our youthful desires, our need to grow and expand. Death Isn't death, but becoming cold, distant, fearful, hardened, and conformed. And it is convincing ourselves that we are doing this on purpose for our own good.
I convinced myself that I became “sweater Jason” so I could grow and change, but it was because I was fearful of feeling the feelings I felt before again, so I let the confidence in myself die. I tell myself that people are ultimately self-serving and betrayal is just an aspect of life, so I harden and become distant and let the capacity for trust, and ultimately the capacity for love die. I force myself into what I feel my family, or society want me to be, so I allow my freedom and my willingness to branch out die. And I watch others do all of this too.
The beauty in it though, is that this death is not permanent. Our capacity for trust and love, our freedom, our youthful innocence is not dead, for we can bring it back. Og Mandino wrote about resurrection being life’s greatest miracle in the sense that it is always possible to bring people back from the metaphorical death, and it always necessary to try. We just have to first accept that we are unwilling to allow the best parts of ourselves die, and that we can overcome the harshness and inevitable suffering that is existence without cowering or sheltering into ourselves.
“Death is not the great loss in life, the greatest loss in what dies inside of us while we live.”
The death of parts of us is a necessary step often. Everytime we learn something new, something old has to die, Everytime we grow, we kill an old part of us. This is needed, as sacrifice means that we let go of the thing that we love, or desire. This thing can often be a part of ourselves that is no longer self-serving. There is a huge difference between death as a means of growth and death as a means of loss, and it depends on the reasoning and the the part of us that is being killed. If we are killing the naive and foolish part of us that allowed us to carelessly walk into a snake pit, then that is growth. If we are killing the part of us that allows us to walk because we know that their may be a snake pit somewhere, then that is loss.