On being Lisa

It would be a lie if I told you that I am not scared. For me, the most frightening part of being smashed against the wall of mortality is the feeling that my life has been a failure. That I haven’t had enough time to realize all of my dreams and to make the kinds of contributions to the world that I always thought I would. — Lisa S. Keary

My dear friend Lisa passed away last week in Chiang Mai after more than a year fighting lung cancer. During this time she wrote eloquently about her experiences in the course of her discovery, treatment and eventual surrender to the disease. She held a Ph.D with distinction from Columbia University and had a exemplary career in human rights NGOs. Lisa did make a great difference in this life and by the end of it, she realized that the things she had failed to achieve mattered less than being grateful for all that she had been given. 

Emptiness is beautiful

In order to endure your condition, the human condition, you like everybody else, need a great deal of courage.
The next moment may be the moment of your death, you know it and yet you can smile: come now, isn’t that admirable? 
In the most insignificant of your actions, there is an immensity of heroism.  — Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea

It isn’t until the end of our lives that most of us give up trying to resolve the contradiction between our idea of ‘who I am’ and ‘who I should be’. Relentlessly spooling in the back of our minds, this unconscious narrative silently occupies most of our decision-making bandwidth. When the clock is running out, ‘who I should be’ becomes irrelevant and we’re left with ‘who I am’. There’s nothing more to measure up to, nothing to prove or regret. Being at peace is when we forgive ourselves for not being somehow better and realize that we’re the only ones keeping score.

In the end, we are left to accept that ‘who I am’ is enough. Knowing this in life, we are liberated to enjoy the creative process for its own sake.

Lisa’s clarity on the power of gratitude in overcoming her suffering is something that inspires me to re-think my everyday life. “Suffering comes from the feeling that we can’t get what we want,” she wrote. Wanting less is not the answer, nor is trying to live without expectations. Once we are attached to the idea of “who I should be” and “what I deserve”, all our energy becomes focused on validating that and pushing against everything that threatens it.

So our suffering becomes tied up in maintaining a self-image that is at odds with the story of who we tell ourselves we are. We struggle to move beyond the self-talk that constantly reminds us we are frauds. It admonishes that we are undeserving because we didn’t try hard enough. It amplifies every failure. Yet it also constantly asserts our self-importance and feeling of entitlement that keeps us believing in somehow winning a game we have set ourselves up to lose.

I should be a hero, but I know I am a coward.
Who taught you that?

We learn to derive happiness from our dissatisfaction because it points us toward something that needs doing and makes us feel useful in the process. There’s always something that needs our unique contribution; money for our family, care for our elders and children, management of our organizations. It’s from these roles we derive our sense of value instead of recognizing the intrinsic value of our basic humanity. In the moments before his death, Kevin Spacey’s character, Lester Burnham in American Beauty is asked, “How are you?” After admitting that “It’s been a long time since anybody’s asked me that,” in a sudden realization of gratitude for his “stupid little life”, he answers, “I’m great.” What I took from this was, by coming to terms with our own insignificance, we allow ourselves the freedom to be great.

As a scholar of Eastern religions, Lisa deeply understood the idea of emptiness; being a mirror and not a vessel. A mirror holds no image but what itself perfectly reflects, where a vessel is filled up by the sea of ideas that flow from the earliest civilizations. In time, we define ourselves by these ideas, acquiring and defending them as our own. When full, there’s no room for any new ideas. Only when we take time to empty our minds of ‘who I should be’ can we instill a new story of ‘who I am’. This wisdom is available to each of us once we give up trying; trying to be better, trying to be smarter, trying to fight against ourselves.

When we’re trying not to lose, we’re focused on loss. Trying to ease the pain instead of embracing it brings only temporary relief. When we’re trying not to die, we’re already dead. Trying to be better is forever chasing our own tail. In the end, we have only ourselves to please, so why not begin now?

I will miss you, Lisa, and your quiet, dignified greatness.

But on reflecting further, I have come to understand not only just what an extraordinary life I have lived but as importantly I’ve come to a better understanding of so-called “suffering.” For some time now, I’ve been taken by how hard life has become for so many people. And while it is true that the current economic and political state of our world is in enormous decay and affecting each of us, much of our suffering comes from a feeling of not getting what we want rather than being grateful for all that we have been given. — Lisa S. Keary