Finding a Life Worth Living

Finding a Life Worth Living

Finding a Life Worth Living

It is hard to be happy without a life worth living… Of course, all lives are worth living in reality. No life is not worth living. But what is important is that you experience your life as worth living–one that is satisfying, and one that brings happiness.

Marsha Linehan, DBT Skills Training Manual (p. 387)

It was mid-fall, late afternoon, and the sun had crested and was on its way down. Car lights started to blink on, and at that time of day, almost-dusk, I like to squint so taillights and traffic lights and neon-light Open signs in windows blur pleasantly, twinkling on the early evening horizon like fireflies of many colors–pink and green and red and yellow and white–lined up in a row. We were driving down Route 9, a stoplight-dotted thoroughfare that slows to an unpleasant crawl if you hit it at the right time, even during this time of working from home. I tend to find this pace unbearable, but on this particular day, I felt unencumbered by the barely-moving traffic. I was in no rush to get to where I was going, and where I was going didn’t matter anyway–in that moment, driving anywhere, mid-fall, with my dog and three of my favorite people in the world, felt like driving home.

Next to me, curled up on a red flannel blanket–my puppy, Iris; behind us, three small friends, a two-and-a-half-year-old, a five-year-old, and a seven-year-old. Then, in the trunk, seven enormous pumpkins (objectively too many pumpkins), fat and distended, grotesque caricatures of pumpkins–beautiful. After pulling them from the patch and buying six sweet cider donuts, the seven-year-old had helped me load them into the trunk, hoisting and swinging and setting. As the car now bumped along down Route 9, the pumpkins rolled gently, like soft thunder behind us.

We sat in traffic–donut crumbs sticky on fingers, windows rolled down, so the breeze, bright and crisp, brushed against our hair, our cheeks, our lips.

And we sang! Loudly, with abandon, “Down by the Bay.” We sang nonsense rhymes and words that didn’t exist–“Did you ever see a cow! Doing a WOW!” “Did you ever see a turtle, having a wurtle??” 

I laughed, and tears, warm and briny, pulled clumped mascara from the corners of my eyes to the top of my lip. My entire body was filled with those tears, that warmth, that love–my heart swelled up with what I can only describe as deep, pure, embodied wholeness–this is a life worth living.

It wasn’t one thing, it was everything, all of it–the afternoon we had shared, the gentle pace at which the world was moving then, the joy of three children filled with sunshine and maple sugar and songs with words we made up as we went along, the love surrounding me, the just-rightness of it all. I was overwhelmed as we eased down Route 9. I am present, I am whole, I am content. I am living the life I have worked to build, a life made of moments like these. A life worth living.

Every life is one worth living, but for many years, trauma and loneliness and addiction and mental illness and perfectionism had alienated me from a life that felt worthwhile. For a long time, I thought that in order to live a life that had value for me and for others, I would need to occupy a body that maintained a certain size and shape; I would need to live a life devoid of panic and free from obsessive thoughts, a life without sadness and pain; I would need to be perfect, or as near perfect as I could possibly manage.

But when I strove for those things, those impossible things–impossible body, impossible mind, impossible self–I drew further and further from a life that was, for me, fulfilling and valuable–a life worth living. 

In pursuit of a body that was always just out of reach, I fell quickly into the abyss of anorexia, an abyss too dark and deep for the light of a life worth living to find. In pursuit of an impossible mind, I used self-harm and substances to numb out the feelings and thoughts that consumed me, but again, I could not find a life I wanted to live. In pursuit of an impossible self, a perfect self, I became a version of myself I neither liked nor recognized, a version of myself very much divorced from a life worth living.

When I let go of these expectations I had for myself and for a worthwhile life and accepted myself for who and what I was, I began to realize that I had closed my eyes to many of the things around me that made life beautiful. Simple things–the first yellowy-orange leaves of autumn (cadmium yellow, I think), the gritty sweet of brownie batter left behind on spoons and fingertips and bowls, the satisfaction of mending a favorite shirt or rewiring a long-broken lamp, the sound of embers sparking when another log is tossed on a burning fire. These are the things I hold on to now, both when I feel whole and when I feel fractured. And I find a life worth living in these things, in these moments where I embrace the present, the traffic along Route 9 and nonsense rhymes, the saccharine sweet of donut crumbs and the heft of pumpkins rolling into each other in the trunk, the overwhelming joy of being alive.

Elizabeth O'Neill
Author

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