The Quest to Study (And Achieve) a Life Well Lived

a-life-well-lived.png

I often wonder about what future generations will see when they look back at our time. I’m a writer after all. It’s in my bones to think about audiences, even those not yet born.

  • When we are the ones in the history books and on high school quizzes, what will our descendants think?

  • How well did we do with what we’d been given?

  • How well did we live life?

  • How will our way of life be perceived?

I think in many ways one word will stand out above all: convenience.

After all, nearly every invention in my lifetime (and perhaps since the invention of the computer) has been one of increased conveniences –– all in an effort to live a “good life.”

Here are a few examples if this doesn’t immediately resonate with you:

  • The internet: Convenient access to all possible information.

  • Amazon: Convenient access to and evermore convenient delivery of all possible books (and now, all possible goods in general).

  • Uber: Convenient access to a ride to all possible destinations at all possible times.

Yet for all our attempts, I just can’t help by think that there are parts of our existence that simply cannot be made easy or convenient. There are parts of who we are that cannot be outsourced: not to an app or to technology.

In our quest for the "good life," we’ve made the assumption that more convenient lives lead to happier lives.

As a result, we’ve often thwarted joy, replacing human connection with loneliness.

For myself, I’ve grappled with this cultural loneliness, both experiencing it as well as working to understand it, help others identify it, and to properly name it.

This pursuit has led me to the feet of writers, philosophers, podcasters, poets, and professors, including:

  • Rebecca Solnit

  • Maria Popova

  • Krista Tippett

  • Emily Dickenson

  • Zadie Smith

  • Caitlin Doughty

  • Mary Oliver

  • Susan Sontag

  • Oliver Sacks

  • Buddha

  • The Dalai Lama

  • Elizabeth Gilbert

  • Brene Brown

  • and so many others.

In particular, I found their words comforting in the weeks, months, and years following my step-father’s sudden death in 2015. But that wasn’t where this journey began.

Steeped in a Tradition of Southern Gothic

I was raised Southern Baptist, steeped in a Southern Gothic tradition in which passed loved ones and the living went on side-by-side.

  • Every family member had their story.

  • Each room had its own unseen inhabitant.

Life itself was a memento mori (which are reminders of death, and its inevitability for us all) in my childhood home –– pictures of Jesus on the cross, loved ones we’d lost, and a parade of new tales about things that go bump in the night.

Death surrounded us, too, in the more normal ways: disease and old age, accidents and tragedy. And when those events occurred, there we were again at the one family-owned funeral home in my hometown where I’ve attended at least 98% of services in my life.

Then, beginning around my Junior year of high school, there seemed to be something in the water. Seven of my close classmates and friends lost their lives over the next few years.

Everyone I knew was paralyzed by grief and confusion. Every ring of the phone had you asking: “Who this time?”

It was the first time many of my friends had dealt with loss up close. It's a mind-altering event bringing with it different perspectives on the purpose of life.

It makes you a different person.

For me, grief became a topic to study and I launched into full-blown research mode. That research led me early on into the study of Buddhism, the Catholic Jesuit sect, and the origin story of Lilith, Adam’s fabled first wife (before the legendary apple).

Years later, that research led to a study of differing death practices and rituals the world over, including Dios de Los Muertos in Mexico and The Ceremony of Cleaning of Corpses of the Toraja people of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Over this time (some 15 years), I’ve seen cultural attitudes change within my own family. Once firm believers in burying of the body, now considerers of cremation thanks to my step-father’s will and our adherence to his last wishes, however against our tradition they were at the time.

This aligns with a larger trend: the number of cremations in the US has risen by more than 2X in the last 15 years –– a result of a blend of economic and environmental cultural shifts in the minds, attitudes, and behaviors of Americans.

A New Age of Memento Mori

All of this came to a crux when, in 2018, anxiety settled in my chest and a lack of career growth had me questioning my role at a big tech company.

I naturally found myself back to the books –– reading and researching death and grief, hope and what makes for a life well lived.

This research is, after all, my comfort zone and my compass. More so, it always provides me an answer to Mary Oliver’s poetic question:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I will study it, Mary. That is what I will do. I will study that which is inevitable to understand that which is now.

In this new research, I stumbled across Eterneva, a company with the ability to turn cremated ashes into diamonds, to create a memento mori that rivals the gilded crosses of the Middle Ages in beauty and brilliance.

Well, isn’t that something wild to do with a precious life?

After all, in all my research and my books, on all of my podcasts and radio shows, I’ve found that a constant reminder of death forces me to live a much more conscious, present, and properly prioritized life.

It shines a light not on the end, but on the right now to help you wake up, to see the world for what it is, to not waste any time.

And I’m not alone. Memento Moris exist in every culture and in every time and in every possible form.

  • Cemeteries and urns.

  • Tattoos and photographs.

  • Cremation jewelry and memorial diamonds.

All serve as reminders of death, its inevitability, the importance of the fleeting time we’ve been gifted, and the higher call to make good use of that time by forging unbreakable connections to people who will be with us in mind, memory, and beyond no matter what.

It should come as no surprise then that I did everything I could to join the Eterneva team, to put my research and passion for this subject to use, to forgo the world of convenience for the world of grief, to change our relationship with that often dark pit and to replace it with light, with hope, with curiosities and connection.

For in the end, most of us fear that we will not be remembered, that we will be lonely or forgotten for eternity. Our modern era doesn’t help ease those concerns. Neither do traditional memorials: urns often get tossed after a generation, obituaries seem so impersonal and impermanent, and so on.

But Eterneva’s mission works to ensure the opposite: brilliance and beauty as a replacement for darkness, the kind that is passed down through generations, that stays with you wherever you go, that is a reminder not just of your loved one, but of the deeper meaning of life.

It reminds me of the Christian story of creation:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.”

My own mission at the company is to do just that, as best I can. To turn the periods of darkness into light for those who have lost and so loved, telling tales not of what goes bump in the night, but of what makes us human.

  • For me, this seems a birthright, a position for which the whole of life experiences has been preparing me.

  • For you, dear reader, I hope it is the beginning: a journey of exploration into the wild depths of living and the inevitability of living no more, and what any of us can do to squeeze out the worth of every second we get.

I can promise you one thing: it won’t be convenient. Of course, this living well is all that matters, now and at the end.