I answered the phone to hear my mother announce, “John’s life is over.” No hellos or lead-in to the conversation, just a calm matter-of-fact tone, “John is dead”. However, the news did not stir any real reaction inside me. John was my grandmother’s husband, no blood relation to me. I never had any deep or meaningful ties with my grandmother, and her husband was nothing more than someone I occasionally saw at holidays. He had been an alcoholic and a very peculiar man who made me uneasy on the off chance we were in a room alone together.
“When is the funeral?” I asked my mom while I thumbed through my calendar.
“There won’t be one,” she responded.
The thought made me stop cold. There was no one besides my grandmother to mourn this man. While I had never been close to him or my grandmother, I thought there had to be other people who cared for them. I never gave much consideration to what they had contributed to this world or the legacy they would leave behind, but I suddenly found myself stunned by the lack of attention John’s death would receive. Both he and my grandmother were very unhappy people who chose to blame everyone else for their shortcomings. It made it difficult to have empathy or any kind of relatability toward them. Apparently, those feelings were not exclusive to me.
John would be cremated, and it would be over. A lifetime would be reduced to the contents of a canister sitting on my grandmother’s mantel. There was no one to mourn his life or his absence. I understood the decisions, but was like the painful shock of setting your hand on a hot burner, unexpected but you know better. The hot sting sent signals straight to my brain, and my mind started turning with anxious questions. What is the point of life if no one cares when you die? What is the purpose of my own life? I began to wonder how many people would truly mourn me in death. A deep sinking feeling began to grow in the pit of my stomach, its force strengthened with each thought rising as if it would rip out my heart. I had failed in one of the most basic and fundamental goals of humanity. There were few true relationships in my life.
I had always been a painfully shy child, and it was mirrored behavior from my own mother who hated social interaction. Decades of unworthy feelings had been passed from my grandmother, to my mother, eventually landing in my lap. However, my social anxiety was first sparked when I was about 8. I remember getting into a particularly nasty fight with my sister during Christmas break, and as my mother broke it up, she told us, “This is why no one likes you girls. You are just mean and nasty. Why do you think no one invited you over to play during break?”
Her words were worse than any punishment could have been. It began an inner dialogue which has made me constantly question who I am, and what people see in me. Those words have stuck with me ever since like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have spent much of my life fearing how I am perceived, and I know this fear is not unique to me. Maybe the depth of paranoia is unique to me, but in each of us is the need for approval. People crave the stability and support of a community. As I struggled with my own ideas of acceptance and community, I developed an irrational anxiety that I was somehow the most hated person in the world. In attempt to insulate myself from rejection, I began to push people away from a young age and build a wall around my life, creating an island on which I am now stranded.
In adolescence, isolation turned into an “I don’t give a shit” attitude to avoid the desperation of fitting in. I fell in line with other misfits feeling at ease in the presence of others with a warped sense of the world, but in this approach, those I allowed in my life used the same defense mechanism. None of those relationships were based on real feelings, just a common background and a need to create the illusion of togetherness. It was a flimsy support system, which served me well until I became an adult, someone with a mortgage and a 9 to 5. My eccentric identity did more than keep people at a safe distance. It made people not like me.
Now, on the other side of my melodramatic teenage angst, and raising my own child, it’s as if a veil has been lifted. The world is not out to get me. My peers aren’t fighting a popularity contest any more. We are marching alongside each other toward middle age, trying to define our lives in a way for which we will be remembered. I want more than a world of isolation to avoid fear. In the end, it will be those we touched in our lifetime that will carry our memory forward. It will be the only thing left from our earthly bodies. It reminds me of the age old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Will silence be the only legacy in the wake of my death?
My desire for meaningful relationships was amplified when I became pregnant. I realized I didn’t really have a support network beyond my family, and I felt I was already failing as a mother. How could I teach my baby to be a good person when people didn’t even like me? My feelings began to manifest into an obsessive fear that no one would show up to my baby shower. It was my worst nightmare come true, a physical showing of the lack of people in my life. When I went into labor at 30 weeks, five days before my shower, at the forefront of my thoughts was an overwhelming relief that I could cancel the party. Looking back on it now, it seems a bizarre and sad relief in the midst of complicated pregnancy. I just couldn’t admit I had allowed my insecurities to create such a debilitating loneliness and anxiety.
After my son was born, I was talked into planning another shower, and I reluctantly agreed after extensive badgering. A quick party was put together, and every day leading up to it, I was anxious and ashamed about my fear over something that should have been a happy occasion. The day of, I sat there in the decorated hall with my newborn, feeling sick to my stomach. I handed my son off to my Mom and locked myself in the bathroom and cried until about 15 minutes after the start of the shower, praying people would show up. Family and acquaintances shuffled in, all smiling and cooing at the perfect little baby I was so lucky and thankful to have in my life. Yet, I sat there overwhelmed, counting the heads at each table, wondering if the hall looked full to the guests. My mind went over every detail like a crazed madman. I was missing out on life. A happy, momentous occasion was reduced to a stressful burden because of my inability to overcome social anxiety and connect with others.
In the days following, I looked at my tiny newborn and wanted more than anything to give him a life full of love, which meant changing how I approached the world. I didn’t want to raise my son with the same keep away attitude only to wrestle with the same lonely hollowness. His birth initiated a desire to change my sense of identity. More than ever before, I began searching to discover where I belonged in this world and what purpose I held. As I faced the new role as mother, it was the first time I understood how selfish I had been in my singularity. He opened my heart to true love and empathy and meaning. My entire lifetime was punctuated with the phrase “I don’t need anybody.”
When I held my son, I finally realized all that survives in this world is love. It is what makes our lives rich and purposeful. Isolation erodes our sanity exposing our fears and holding us back. To live a life with comradery and togetherness provides the support we need to go further than we ever could alone. I had spent so much time contemplating my accomplishments when I should have been considering my relationships. My whole life had been spent pushing people away, but without people there is no love, there is only the finality of death.
Even with this realization, I found it difficult to know where to start. Much of my struggle is owed to the fact that I really don’t like me. It is a constant cycle of self-loathing which I am forever trying to stop, but I can’t seem to find the off switch to my brain. Do I give unselfishly and to a fault? Do I put everyone before me? How do I learn to like myself? I analyze and overthink everything until I second guess myself into inaction, but my son has become my inspiration to be more.
I have come to believe my relationships in this world are part of my purpose in life.
To leave a lasting impression is what we all want. We want to be remembered for what we did, and if we avoid people and relationships we become a shadow of our physical selves. I don’t believe there is one particular path of purpose, but I think it is more important that my path crosses others, intersecting and growing. There is only this life we know of, and we get the chance to carve out our own special space in time. When we share our experiences and give our love to others, it makes that space a little bit bigger, a little more meaningful. John Donne once wrote, “No man is an island.” To me that means our lives are not meant to be singular. We feel a range of emotions unlike any other living thing, and those feelings connect us to humanity allowing us to grow on so many levels. When we close ourselves off to the world, we remain static shells, existing not living. After I leave this Earth, all that will be left is how I have treated the people in my life. If I have spent all of my time pushing instead reaching, I will have failed as a person. My love and what I have to offer will be wasted if I hold them inside of me. They will rot with me on my island, and my purpose will be left unfulfilled and forgotten, a death met with only silence.
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