Saturday, February 11, 2012

Closure Exercise

Recently a friend attended a discussion that talked about things family or friends should do with or for the eventually-to-be-departed. The basic notion was that people should have some deep conversations with their loved ones about the end of their lives: not just medical, financial, or funeral arrangements, but closing out more personal business.

For instance: if you knew you were to die in the next year, month, week, or day, and you still had your wits about you, what would you want to share with them about what your life meant? What lessons would you want to pass on? What advice would you give? Orson Scott Card had something like this in his Ender series, a "Speaker for the Dead," who would try to sum up what a person's life and death meant, to themselves and others. However, instead of having some third party guess, why not have the person sum things up themselves rather than leave others to weep, lament, or guess because they didn't get that oh-so-psychobabbly world, "closure?"

Personally, I think (and said as much to my friend) that this sort of "closure" exercise has become more necessary because people have less faith in an afterlife and seeing their relatives therein. After all, if you know you're going to heaven, you can rest assured in the knowledge that you will "see you real soon." I was told that my attitude was "very male." I would've gone with Christian or Stoic, but whatever.

So as a follow-up, I said, "Tell ya what: when I get home tonight, I'll share my summation of my life on my blog so there won't be any doubts." Understand, then, that what follows is an honest attempt to answer a friend's question, not because I anticipate my imminent demise. Lacking a smoking habit or an extreme-sports kind of lifestyle, I'm looking to be around longer than some people would prefer. Nevertheless, this is a summation, or an attempt at one. Subject to revision, addition, or subtraction in the future, as my mood suits me.

What I've Learned, What I Think My Life Has Meant, and Other Thoughts

Bart D. Leahy
I have been incredibly blessed, whether by God or random circumstances. I had a painful childhood and adolescence that I didn't enjoy a lot of the time, and if I ever had to live it all over again, I'd say "No thank you, I don't need to experience that more than once." Nevertheless, however painful my childhood (and I don't pretend it was anything other than petty evils, occasional thrashings on the playground, or ugly moments on the way home from school that hurt me), that was not so important as overcoming those things and becoming a man I could look in the mirror with some justified pride.

I always had my eye on the future, on what I was going to be when I grew up, under a naive but persistent belief that I'll learn more and the future will be better. That belief did not come naturally. I have a certain Irish tendency to tragedy that has always warred with my learned American optimism. I sometimes cling to that optimism more than is wise because I worked so hard to achieve it.

I had a lot of dreams as a kid, and I wrote about them in fictional form well into my twenties. I wanted to be a writer. I am one. I wanted to live in Orlando and work for Walt Disney World. I did those things for 12 years. I wanted to work for the military in some form. While an Army recruiter refused to take me, I did get a chance to be a writer for a defense contractor. That contractor designed, built, and maintained petroleum, water, and truck systems for the Army, including armor kits that protected soldiers in Iraq. In some way, then, I got to help. I also wanted to work for the space business--NASA in particular. I've been a space advocate for 15 years and a NASA contractor for nearly six. Those dreams were achieved through a belief that they were worth pursuing in the real world, and by putting in the hard work to make them a reality.

The Science Cheerleader activity has been a complete fluke to me. If you had told my 20-year-old self that I would be working with professional cheerleaders with science and technology degrees, I'd have laughed in your face; nevertheless, here I am. It's not like I sought out this sort of adventure for myself. A friend connected me to Darlene, and I found that I believed in her multi-layered cause:
  • She wants cheerleaders and women taken seriously as contributors to the science community.
  • She wants to make science and technology outreach fun and to break up some stereotypes.
  • She wants more American citizens to be science/technology-literate.
  • She wants broader public involvement in science and technology issues.
I can get behind all that. I didn't require a lot of persuading or "attitude adjustment" to get behind the cause. Mind you, I've had to learn how to behave appropriately, but that's a whole 'nother story.

At this point in my life, I can look back on my career with pride and few regrets except that I didn't take more chances on my calling sooner.

My dreams have been pursued out of love of the work, not for love of money. Money has come, bit by bit, but that money has gone to other things I love: books, travel, meals and beverages with family and friends, as well as institutions that I respect such as my church and the USO. If I love what I am doing, no reasonable amount of money will lure me away from it; likewise, if I do not love what I'm doing and a lower-paying job is offered that does allow me to do what I love, the money will lose. I follow my heart in professional matters, and it has rarely led me astray.

In relationships I have not been so lucky, and my heart has led me down some dark, ignorant, and foolish paths. I have given my trust and affections to women who, quite frankly, weren't as interested in me, or who abused my tolerance or trust. I have hurt some unjustly for superficial or self-serving reasons, or because someone hurt me or I could not see myself spending the rest of my life with that particular person. My formative experience with adult relationships was my parents' divorce. Through that, I learned about hurt and broken families, but I also learned about resilience, rebuilding, and independence. My father remarried, and mother did not. I took my mother's path: focusing on taking care of my duties (work) and functioning without a partner. As a regularly ostracized or picked-on youth, I was not particularly in demand as a dating partner. Eventually, I learned to make a virtue of necessity and am now happier single. I regret more things I've done in my dating life than things I haven't done. All this adds up to a life that will be spent traveling and living alone. It is part of who I am.

What else would someone want to know from me? What has my life meant to others? I cannot always speak to what others think, but I gather I've added good doses of humor and occasional deep thought to some lives. I have tried to be a good friend and a doer of good deeds when no one is looking. I have been nicer on occasion than people might have known and there have been occasions when I've been a bigger bastard than anyone thought possible. I won't name names on this blog, but if I've hurt you in this life and you're reading this, I'm truly sorry for any damage I've done. That's not the same as wishing I'd never done some of the harsh things in my life, but it's as close as this flawed individual is likely to come to it--I'll have to answer to God for the evil I've done.

What do I think my life has meant to myself? I can only describe things this way: I have tried to be the best Bart Leahy that I can, in my own goofy way. This has meant reading a lot of philosophy and religion; refraining from sins even if they might've resulted in some long-term benefit; trying to be "nice," and learning what I can about the world and the universe in which it moves. If there has been one constant to my life of mind, it has been that I have sought wisdom, wherever it might be found. Some of this learning has been concentrated on myself as well--long hours, days, or years alone with my thoughts--trying to sort out why I'm here, why I do what I do, and what I need to do in the future. I am unlikely to fully succeed in this venture, as I learn greatly and fail grandly. I suppose this is why I alternate between idealism, pragmatism, and cynicism. I am an idealist to the extent that I believe some things can be made better if people of good will apply enough intellect, wisdom, or hard work to them. I am a pragmatist because I often absorb ideas that appear useful to me and because I am not a political revolutionary by any wild stretch--I strive to work with people and the world as I see them to be rather than as I might wish them to be. I am a cynic when my efforts at idealism or pragmatism fail.

Why do I think I've been here? Since I was about 27 or so, I've had some handle on what my skills were and how I could tie my interests to my abilities to become a useful citizen. I am a technical writer because I love explaining technical subjects in simple, clear, and correct words. Perhaps that is not the same as finding the meaning of life, but it has been my goal, career, and purpose for getting up in the morning for 15 years now. And along the way, I've chosen to try to pursue the good as I see it: be a law-abiding citizen; follow the rules of the society around me, however confused or contradictory; speak my mind and speak the truth when asked--and sometimes even if I'm not asked; don't be evil or rude unnecessarily; be harder on myself than others (since I have more say over what I do); don't force my opinions or will on others; try to be a defender of women and children even if I'm not a husband or father; and be a good man. I suppose I'm the only one besides God who will ever know the whole story about whether I got things right. And like I said earlier, I have a lot of years ahead of me to find out, as He wills.

What advice would I offer to others? Sheesh, follow whatever dream(s) bring out the best in you. If you're a fisherman, be a fisherman. If you're an expert hair cutter, be a stylist. If you're a natural healer, be a doctor. If you have found the love of your life, connect with him/her. Life is too damned short. That amounts to "follow your heart," which also isn't bad advice because as long as you are doing something to which you are emotionally committed, you are likely to put more effort and (theoretically) more success out of it. No guarantees, of course.

What else? Be a good friend, day in, day out. Don't be a jerk unnecessarily. It has been my privilege and burden to work in the company of some very bright people, and I can say with relatively little controversy that not all of them have the nicest demeanors. There are some really brilliant ideas in these people's heads that will never be accepted by the bulk of humanity simply because the people holding them have been such asses to the people around them. "Nice" is a skill, too, and it's a good one to learn for those days when you can't manage "competent."

Also, don't spend your life worrying about or hating the people who hurt you in the past. You could not and cannot change who they were or what they did. Happiness really is an inside job. And if you can't manage it yourself, get help--from a professional, from clergy, from dear friends or a caring stranger. There is God, too: up there, listening, waiting to offer help if we'll let Him.

Keep a sense of humor about yourself. It's easy to do if you start out with the realization that you are not, and never will be, perfect. I have no idea if my humor will turn out to be my saving grace, but it has kept me from going bonkers on occasion.

I have a standing set of political rules that I work from: don't believe your own BS; however, if you DO start believing it, don't take undue advantage of the power that your BS gives you; and if, God help you, you have taken excessive advantage of said power, never forget that there are others who have more power than you.

And, as I noted earlier: try to be the best you that you can be. Only you truly know what your capabilities and strengths are. Only you know what errors and weaknesses you have and what resources you can call upon to overcome them.


No doubt there are other "closure" items that I would need to address with individual friends or family members, but the above is for anyone who cares to know. If you understand that my "prime directive" has been simple, constant self-improvement, the rest becomes easy to follow. Do you know why you do what you do? Do you think your family members will understand you after you were gone? If not, maybe it's time for one of these "closure exercises." They might learn things that are never too late to learn, and so might you.

1 comment:

Laura said...

It has been a pleasure to know you, Bart Leahy. I am honored to call you a friend.