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My dog died last night. Despite a frantic, late night dash to the animal ER and some exceptional measures, Nimo couldn’t be saved. He was my companion for more than 11 years. He was with me, showing that quiet, unshakable — almost mythic — canine love, through some achingly difficult times.
Yeah, he was just a dog. Maybe that’s my point. As we move through life, our hearts connect with others: people and animals, even ideals and causes. It’s how we’re wired. It’s where we find and make the meaning for our lives. And when we connect we know that, somewhere down the line, someone will live the loss.
When you truly feel loss — that deep, raw, aching, tattered hole in your heart — it is evidence that you have lived openly and vulnerably. The pain of loss is a triumph of the heart: it means that you allowed yourself to love, and to be loved, even in the face of knowing that someone would necessarily suffer that pain. The bill for that joy comes due. If it wasn’t so precious, it wouldn’t hurt when it’s suddenly gone. You’ve earned that pain by collecting the experiences that make life worthwhile.
Pain encourages us to get distant. But the anticipation of pain is insidious: this fear of possible pain encourages us to wall ourselves off from the joyful, meaningful experiences that earn the deferred pain of eventual loss.
If we don’t consciously work against all our protective inclinations, we cut ourselves off from truly living. It’s easy to talk ourselves out of loving, caring, and risking. It’s easy to fall into the habit of preemptive self-protection. But without those wonderful, dangerous connections and commitments, we’re just existing. You must accept that your love will disappoint, grow old, eventually fail, and be gone. You must revel in the treasured opportunity because it will not come around again.
Life is transient. We know that. And we do everything we can to shield ourselves from that reality. We know that life, and all the hopes and dreams and love it offers, is fragile. We con ourselves daily into believing that those things we love will last forever, and we do that because we cannot bear the existential weight of it. And then, on occasion, the harsh razor of reality slices through our carefully constructed veil. We are forced to confront the consequence of having cared. And it sucks beyond the telling.
I’ve been on this planet longer than most of us now. I’ve collected many losses: family, friends, mentors, lovers, and cherished companion animals, too.
Sometimes, loss sneaks in, unannounced, and we don’t know it in the moment. But other times, we bear full, knowing witness to the instant of loss. We try so hard to open our hearts and show the other just how much they are loved so that they might pass with the small comfort of having known their irreplaceable effect.
We need a few things in our life we care so much about that we accept the coming pain of loss. I am proud of my losses. I will keep loving and caring and risking and committing, though I know I will lose again. The grief we feel in the face of loss — that yawning chasm of despair that spontaneously erupts within us — is a measure of how much we dared to care. We owe it to ourselves, and those around us, to live lives of care, knowing that the pain will come.
I don’t give love easily, but when I do, I love without reservation and I remain committed. I know that means I will lose again. I know that means I will be again consumed in this awful blackness of grief. But the darkness of grief is the photo-negative of the brightness that once illuminated our lives.
And still, in the face of grief, I choose love. A life well-lived means collecting losses. That’s the hell of it. We must choose experiences that affirm our lives when the loss comes due.
Now? I’m going to have a good cry and be thankful for the brightness of the love that once illuminated this part of my life. That is what makes life wonderful…and what makes loss hurt so.
Every Memorial Day, as a child, I recall the family dressing up, loading a variety of floral arrangements, and trekking across country to spend the day visiting cemeteries.
The lumbering station wagon would kick up a mighty plume of dust as we pulled into the necropolis. (In my memory, it’s always a dry, dusty, unbearably hot day.) All of the adults craning to look around, pointing, gently squabbling: “I think he’s over there.” “No, he’s by his Aunt…”
We’d eventually find a spot that was generally agreed to be “close enough” and exit the vehicle to search on foot, reading the bare notes of each life, searching for “our people.” As we looked, we’d nod somberly to other pilgrims, seeking also to find the spare markers of their loved ones lost.
I remember, as a little child, wandering amongst the tombstones while my elders dutifully paid their respects, in turn. I took great care to walk around the spaces where their bodies lay so I wouldn’t disrespect them. The older women of my family had put a lot of thought into this production. There were just the right flowers and sprays for each person: something that spoke to who they were, in life. There were small flags for men who had served in uniform. And there were always stories. There were tears. There was laughter.
And I was there, silent. My ears opened wide. I learned about these people — my people — who had passed before I was ever even a glint. In that way, they became palpable and real to me. I felt connected.
As I grew a bit older, some of those graves contained the remains of people I remembered and loved. I could laugh or cry at stories that were real memories for me, and not just family lore. I could take my turn sharing the stories. I knew where Granddad, Uncle Claude, Aunt Anna Belle, Cousin Kenneth, and so many others were laid to rest.
My childhood happened in an America still wrapped in ritual. Rituals have largely fallen away in the rush and press of post-modernity. We still have a few today, although they’re not as common and not taken as seriously.
That is, I think, a shame. I’m not defending any particular rituals. Some of them have been harmful, exclusionary, and have even celebrated ignorance and the baser parts of our natures. But the act of ritual carries important mental, emotional, and social values.
Ritual focuses our thoughts and actions. Ritual intensifies solemnity, joy, and commitment. Ritual binds communities in our shared identity. Ritual reinforces values, goals, and understanding. Ritual has always been a crucial glue that binds people and institutions. They remind us of our histories, embody our identities, and orient us to our desired futures.
And we have made a society that has devalued and dismissed them. Rituals aren’t necessary — and that is, in some contradictory way, their point. They force pause and introspection. That can’t be bad in a world where too many choices, too many distractions, too many shiny, transient baubles vie for our attention and allegiance.
So on this Memorial Day, I’m suggesting that we might want to rethink our collective attitude toward ritual, itself.
The scientific literature is clear: there are many individual and collective benefits to the judicious inclusion of ritual in our lives. In our over-crowded and uber-accelerated world, making some time for ritual demands that we make space for the meaning of what we do with the precious moments of our lives.
Ritual doesn’t have to be grand, but it should be mindful. We shouldn’t be ashamed to be openly un-ironic. We shouldn’t feel that adding some heft and significance to our actions is somehow inefficient and wasteful. Some things in our lives (even common, everyday things) deserve a bit more honor and respect than we now give. Perhaps it’s worth reflecting on which parts of our lives deserve a bit more care and conscientiousness.
Dr. Kevin J. Payne is a scientist, entrepreneur and author.
Your Life, Lived Well (get Chapter 1 FREE) presents a new understanding of what it’s like to live with a chronic health condition and shows both diagnosed and caregivers how to improve quality of life. It also relates his journey with multiple sclerosis and giving care.
His company, Chronic Cow™, is a labor of love. It uses cutting-edge analytics to deliver improved quality of life: practical answers, grounded in science, driven by data, delivered with compassion, and personalized for you. We identify and guide you through lifestyle changes that will specifically work to improve your health and quality of life with a chronic condition.
His Chronic Life Podcast (co-hosted with Don Peterson) delivers a kind, honest, and reliable take on the often unspoken challenges of living with, and caring for, chronic health conditions.
A research methodologist and data scientist, he’s studied how people best thrive under distress and disadvantage since the 90s. He’s designed, managed, or consulted on more than 1,000 projects.
He’s educated, inspired, and entertained tens of thousands through his classes, workshops, and speeches.
After 15 years as a professor, he left to become a serial entrepreneur. He’s led enterprise generating millions in annual revenue and double-digit growth.
He was born and raised in the Kansas City Metro. He adores activities with heights and pointy objects, can’t have too many books, is a lifelong tech geek, loves collecting new experiences, is devoted to his animals, pretty fond of his kids, and is sometimes a pirate.
He can be contacted through the Booking form on this site.
My company, Chronic Cow, is a labor of love. We deliver tools, training & technology supporting better quality lives for those living with chronic, invisible & disabling illness; loved ones & caregivers; and medical, therapeutic & support professionals. Chronic Cow is a company committed to:
To her friends, she’s known as “Bossie,” the Chronic Cow.
Much of what we think we know about the Golden Age of Piracy is just wrong. It’s been written by blockbuster movies and potboiler novels. The real story is far more fascinating. The line between pirate, soldier, terrorist, revolutionary and entrepreneur is thin and blurry. It is, after all, a matter of perspective — and history is written by the winners. Much of our modern world was born along the Colonial Caribbean and Eastern Seaboard, but we don’t learn much about it.
I grew up performing and sort of accidentally became a pirate many years ago. Since I’ve always been intrigued with history, it’s been a lot of fascinating fun.
Yeah, that’s right: a real pirate of the Golden Era. Quartermaster Richard Noland was his name. Quartermaster of the Whydah fleet, Captain of the Anne Galley, Recruiting Officer to Benjamin Hornigold, and accepter of a Royal Pardon from King George.
Our crew, The Real Pirates of Kansas City, provides pirates for all occasions. Quartermaster Noland might even be persuaded to deliver his keynote address, “A Real Pirate’s Life: Business Lessons from History’s Most Extreme Entrepreneurs” for your corporate or entrepreneurial event.
Teach executives, professionals & employees about two things: (1.) how to easily integrate data and scientific thinking into your better decision-making, and (2.) how to operate successfully under distress.
Advise organizations on the best ways to include data and social & behavioral science insights into existing workflows and decision-making so they won’t become blindsided by poor planning and wishful thinking.
Critical analysis of your organization or a specific program, process or policy, backed by real data and validated science, along with practical instructions for implementation, improvement and monitoring.
Using social and behavioral science, as well as business & management experience, to answer all-important questions for technical, business, or consumer audiences. Formats include written reports, presentations, slide decks & dashboards.