About five years ago, I walked into a therapist’s office in Chicago, dropped my computer bag on the floor, and declared:
“All of this is meaningless! None of it matters. None of it. There’s eight billion of us tiny little dots wandering around as if we know something. As if there’s a point to all this. But there’s really not. We’re all here for about two seconds and that’s it. Blink of an eye. None of it matters.”
This wasn’t the healthiest thought. Nor was it very original. And I wasn’t really upset about it, but for some reason I needed to say it out loud. I still hadn’t sat down yet when this therapist, whom I’d met only recently, asked me if I really felt that way. I answered that at that moment, yes, completely. And I remember her next words, verbatim:
“Well, Michael, if you really, truly believe that, isn’t that kind of a freeing feeling?”
I was dumbfounded. I’d expected her to push back on the whole “meaningless” premise. Instead, she challenged me with a real question. So I stood there for a minute, just thinking about it, and then suddenly got excited when the answer jumped out of my mouth: “Yes! It is freeing!”
I mean, it did make some sense: If none of this life stuff really mattered, then neither did the consequences of any of our words or actions. What a relief! No worrying. No pressures. No stress. A six-month bacchanal in Vegas all of a sudden seemed like a brilliant idea.
Sure, it was a downer to feel like life was sort of an empty barrel in terms of meaning. But the freedom!
Now, to be clear, while that nihilistic thought does still cross my mind from time to time, I don’t believe that life is without meaning. I do believe that one of the most natural parts of our lives is our innate need to find meaning.
Ironically, sometimes life itself reminds us of just how much we matter. That there are, in fact, consequences that are directly related to our actions — or inaction. I got my own reminder of this last night. It was a painful one.
Eight months ago, a friend of mine was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of Lymphoma. She would have to undergo six brutal rounds of chemotherapy over four months to attack it.
Dina and I have been friends for nearly 20 years. I attended her wedding, and she’s been at my big stuff, too. I’ll never forget the laughs we had knocking on doors in Indiana for Barack Obama in 2008.
We haven’t seen as much of each other in recent years, but each summer when I visit Chicago, I have dinner one night at her house with her awesome husband and adorable daughter. In March, when Dina texted me the terrible news and her treatment timeline, she added that our summer ritual would be the motivator to “power through the nastiness.”
I called and texted Dina while she was battling her way through the treatments. True to her nature, she said that the very best thing I could do to help was to call and check in on her husband. Crushing cancer is a family affair.
The chemo was as awful as she’d expected. But in late April, I got a text from Dina saying that the results of her mid-treatment PET scan were fantastic! The tumor, which had been extending, was now completely gone. The sense of relief they felt was enormous, but she would continue the treatments, in abundance of caution.
Three months later, in mid-July, the four of us were scheduled to get together for dinner. But the night before, I texted Dina that because I had both cracked my ribs and torn my rotator cuff in the week preceding, we might enjoy our time more if we rescheduled for another night. Of course she understood.
As it turned out, I had to have shoulder surgery and the rest of my summer was spent recuperating at my father’s house. Now Dina and I were checking up on each other! She was doing better and better, though the beating her body had taken still limited how much she could do.
In September, I could drive again, but I was still staying out in the suburbs. Later in the month I flew to Phoenix for a family health emergency. As I write this, it is late October, and instead of flying back to Arizona last week as I had planned, I am in Chicago with Covid. It’s been an eventful few months.
Last night, I got a call from Dina. I had left a voicemail last week, saying that I was soon returning to Arizona, and that I was sorry I hadn’t rescheduled our dinner. But it wasn’t until I heard her voice on the phone last night that I realized just how badly I’d fucked up.
My friend Dina is diminutive in size. Short. With a voice to match. But that’s just the book cover. She’s about as mighty and independent as anyone I’ve ever met. She excels in her own quiet, understated way as a parent, as a wife, and as head of marketing and communications for one of the top medical systems in the country. This girl is tough.
Dina didn’t complain last night or say a single word about being hurt. But I could hear it. I could feel it. And I literally cannot remember that last time I felt so ashamed about letting someone down. I repeated my apology, even as I could hear how empty it sounded. Dina knew I meant it — but I knew it was too late. I had no excuse.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I could have let this happen. I’m no stranger to the experience of being there for friends and family members who’ve won and lost grueling bouts with cancer. For that matter, plenty of other painful battles. So where the hell was I?
It’s possible that I overestimated how well she was doing. It’s also possible that I got too wrapped up in my own little health melodramas.
But even if those things were true, I think perhaps I didn’t grasp that my company might have actually really mattered to Dina for a couple of hours. Or even the commitment of my company.
When I realized that I had disappointed my dear friend, I felt positively awful. Same thing the next day. But somewhere along the way, I also realized that the way I was feeling was a reminder of the fact that sometimes what matters in life is not for us to decide. So often — daily — our lives carry meanings that stretch far beyond what’s going on inside the six-inch space between our ears. Perhaps an obvious point, but one that can be very easy to lose sight of.
After we hung up the phone, I texted Dina once more, with a final apology and the promise that I would do everything I could to make it up to her. Her reply, unsurprisingly, was unalloyed class:
“Life is too short to get upset when life happens. It’s all about perspective. We love you.”