It seems to me that life divides itself into stages. Perhaps it is simply our memories categorizing things according to easily distinguishable chunks, but regardless of where those delineations come from, it appears that they exist.
A new stage begins with a great unknown. Perhaps it’s moving to start college. Perhaps it’s a new relationship, a new city, a new job. Maybe it’s coming out of the closet. Whatever it is, there’s a feeling of excitement, perhaps to the point of anxiety, and sometimes a sense of groundlessness, not knowing how to fit in this new world.
It’s always easier when others around you are going through that new beginning as well. That way there are others to share the experience with, to sympathize with over the struggles of the new world. And experiencing the joys of newness is always a very bonding experience.
Beginning alone is more difficult, and can sometimes feel alienating. Being the rookie at work, being the only gay kid in town, or moving to a new city alone definitely fit in this category. This requires greater growth, and teaches us to be comfortable by ourselves, but it also allows for reinvention, which can be a great gift if we recognize it.
In time, things become familiar, campuses and city streets easier to navigate, and groups of people easier to relax with. New friends become simply friends, and confidence grows.
Later, familiarity leads to expertise, and we become the veterans. We teach rather than are taught. We run the show, with the bright eyes of the rookies admiring us.
Sooner or later, however, all things must end. All things, even experiences or stages of life, must die.
Death scares us, I think, because we are brought face to face with uncertainty. We are also made to face the fact that the world we inhabited and the identity we claimed within that world are not permanent, and not truly real. The groundlessness hits us not only externally in the world that is ending, but in the internal identity that is fading. The truth of the matter is, however, that this identity was only a mask, albeit a comfortable one.
We move on to different worlds and different identities. When we look back to the past, however, it can appear as if the life that seemed to us to be the entire world was a different life altogether. For a moment, that old identity and those old experiences come back, and we experience nostalgia. The truth is that nostalgia is no more fleeting than the identities we claimed when they were present. We just feel the immaterial of it more.
Death is painful only when we have put something on as our identity. When I think of this, I think of the experience of coming out over the past few years. My identity as a grade-A Mormon, a model son and grandson, and a picture-perfect member of society slowly died. They were never truly real, but I had clung to them like they were. The experience of others’ disapproval felt life-threatening, and the anxiety I felt from my fight-or-flight response seemed to be proof that I was truly under attack.
When the dust settled, however, I found my heart was still beating and my chest still rising and falling with each breath. I was still alive, even though those identities were surely dead. The only time I still feel the threat and pain of death is when I try to cling to those things, though nature or God has dictated that it was time for those things to end.
The reality of who we are transcends any identity we can claim, or anything anyone else can do to us. It is greater than the opinions of others or the oppression or privilege we receive from society. It is greater even than health and physical death, as even the body is an identity we can incorrectly claim. The truth is that the core deep within us cannot be threatened nor killed, and so it does not need to fear. It is the sense of peace we feel when the world seems to stop and everything fall into place. It is the connection we feel when we have nothing to gain from someone else, but have only absolute love for them. It is that moment when the voice in our head finally stops talking, and we just see. In that moment, all the identities fall away, all of the fears and anxieties and heartbreak vanish like smoke in a breeze. We are totally at peace, and completely within the confines of joy and unconditional love.
I love the way that the book The Perks of Being a Wallflower puts it:
“I can see it. This one moment when you know you're not a sad story. You are alive, and you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you're listening to that song on that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in that moment I swear, we are infinite.”
The reality is that there are no stages to life. It’s all illusion. There is only one streak of light as we go from minute to minute, that light being the core of who we are. If we are living true to that light nothing can touch us. Nothing can hurt us. We only lose what was never truly there. Death only claims illusions. The underlying beauty of it all is that the things truly worth having in this world are infinite.