I thought back to the day I turned 22, alone in a strange country. Up to that point, I had always had people around me who loved me and cared that it was my birthday. But now I hadn’t yet forged the deep friendships that eventually helped me put down roots in my new country. On my 22nd birthday, there was no one who cared, at least not within hugging distance. I felt utterly alone and miserable.
Things changed during the following year. I found friendship and even love. I started feeling that my life mattered. And through the years that followed, my life took on more and more meaning: as a wife, mother, colleague, and activist. My place in the world, my contribution to society, and my relationships with others defined who I was. My birthdays were happy ones, surrounded by people who cared.
In my late 40’s the inevitable crisis came. I became aware of how dependent I was on other people’s approval, how desperately I sought and clung to love, and the price I paid for this. In my book, Passage of the Stork, I describe how I grew to learn that my life – that all life – is connected to all else that lives. The ability to exist in the present, instead of clinging to the past or longing for the future, is the secret to peace of mind. And, instead of searching for tangible love, I opened to what the Sufis refer to as The Beloved, the animus of the natural world surrounding me.
As my 69th birthday approached, I decided not to do anything special, and I let family and friends know this. Next year will be a big one, with reason to celebrate. And so, on the morning of my 69th birthday, I woke to a day like any other day, with appointments to keep and chores to do. Of course, felicitations streamed in from family, friends, and acquaintances. But there would be no gathering of loved ones, no special treats or presents. I asked everyone to donate to clean oceans in lieu of presents.
The morning of my 69th birthday I looked back 47 years. I asked myself how I feel now about being alone on my birthday. My first response was, ‘Oh, but I’m not alone. Not only are there people who love me and care all over the world, but I am surrounded by a presence that cares.’
An insistent little voice inside me said, ‘Ok, but what if this isn’t true? What if there were no one who cared? What if your Beloved is only a mental construct to shield you from existential terror? What then?’ In a flash I understood: This is the essence of existentialism. To face the angst of there being nothing that gives your life meaning and not to be overwhelmed by the thought. If there is no reason outside me, tangible or intangible, that life matters, I am the only instrument to make my life matter.
The realization wasn’t bleak; it felt solid and even comforting. I’m free to let go of outgrown beliefs and accept the insignificance of one tiny speck of life in an unmeasurable universe. At the same time, my life takes on the significance I give it.
As I started the day, responding to felicitations and giving myself small treats, I felt strong and happy, and filled with love.