by, Melissa Kelley
A tree says: My strength is trust. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live. —Hermann Hesse
I’m really fast. I talk fast, I read fast, I walk fast, and I actually get through a crisis pretty fast. Or, at least, I don’t stay down for long. However, answering the pervasive existential questions that showed up the day I turned 40?... not fast. In fact, it took exactly 6 years, 5 days.
My Existential Crisis…I like to call her EC...was not really a crisis, per say. She was more like an old friend that showed up for a weekend visit and overstayed her welcome. We met in high school when I was trying to figure out my place in this world.
She showed up again when I was a junior in college trying to figure out what I was going to do with my degree. Those first visits wreaked havoc on my life. Her questions overwhelmed me and the resulting uncertainty was too much for me to handle in a healthy way.
She effected me very differently in my forties. Sure, she made me cry a lot, but she didn’t scare me as much as annoy me.
This is how our conversations would go:
EC: What are you doing here?
Me: Well, I’m raising two children and I’m working.
EC: What are you contributing? What do you give back to this world? What difference are you making?
Me: Well, I’m raising two children and I’m working.
EC: So you are raising two children. That is your life purpose?
Me: Well, it better be because I don’t really have time for much else. Except working. So that I can afford to raise my two children.
EC: Well, if the only life purpose of every parent is to raise their children, and those children grow up and have the same life purpose, then where is the expansion? Isn’t it just a big loop?
When does the world-changing stuff happen?
At this point in the conversation, I would tell her to shut the *bleep* up and I would go eat chocolate. Or, exercise. Sometimes both.
I’ve done enough unscientific research to know that at some point, most parents have similar conversations with themselves or their friends over a glass of wine or too much beer. Whenever I brought this up in a serious setting, and expressed sincere concern that I’m not accomplishing anything or contributing to the world in a meaningful way, the response was always: "You are raising two amazing children. That is the most meaningful thing a person can do!” Every time. That was the response.
And every time, I would feel guilty then think: Why, oh why, oh why can’t I accept that and call it a day? Well, probably because I’m often functioning on a wing and a prayer as a parent. It's not like I’m breaking records in that department! They ARE AMAZING human beings—no question. And yes, I have definitely contributed to their amazingess, but I have also done some really stupid things. Like the time I left the Flintstone vitamins open on the table while I hung out in the other room talking on the phone to my sister. Let’s just say my children have inherited my fondness for sweets and there was a call to the poison hotline that day.
Oh, and the time I told the kids to put on their shoes and heard Erin say to Robbie as I left the room: “Put your goddamn shoes on, Wobbie.” She was 2. The only word she pronounced with perfect diction was goddamn.
So, if my entire purpose here on earth is to be a parent...Well, I'm not feeling like my parenting skills are, shall we say, "World Changing."
Six years and five days after my Existential Crisis returned, I figured it out.
The conversation began the way most do when strangers find themselves next to each other at the networking portion of a business conference. “So, what do you do?” Brendan’s career path included working in New York City at a job that ended due to the economic impact of 9/11. Our meeting took place just weeks after 9/11/14, and for a few reasons I had felt especially sad on that anniversary. So, I stopped him at that point in the story of his career and asked about where he was on 9/11/01.
As Brendan told his story, I felt like I was living it with him. I had chills. I felt sick. I felt anxious. I hung on his every word and felt as though I could see the people on the ferry with him and hear his voice as he yelled at a group of people who were coming undone. I could see the man covered in soot who kept repeating, “Hoboken,” and felt his weight on Brendan’s shoulder as he helped the man into his wife’s arms.
I shared with Brendan that every year on 9/11, I take the stairs in honor of the people who attempted to evacuate the towers under the most horrific of circumstances. As Brendan verbalized his sentiment that my tradition is beautiful and that he now plans to join me on the stairs every year, the look on his face was one of both marvel and appreciation.
The conversation paused, and in the span of a few seconds, unspoken phrases seemed to bounce between us: Someone in the middle of the country felt the impact of that day almost as much as I did…She still carries it with her like I do...Someone who lived 9/11 in 3-D just shared his very personal story with me...This is a piece of that history that relatively few will ever know, and I am one of them.
As I walked to my car, the answers to EC’s questions filled my heart. I feel most alive when I form a real connection, however fleeting. When I hear someone’s stories and share my own, the energy of my soul flows through me in a way that silences my doubts.
I am here to be inspired and to inspire. I am here to find the extraordinary moments in an ordinary day and share my stories in a way that is nothing less than authentic.
The world-changing stuff happens on random Thursday evenings when two strangers share pieces of themselves. It happens on infamous Tuesday mornings when strangers help each other down the stairwell or off the fairy. The world-changing stuff happens when people—whether compelled by crisis or good humor—shed all pretense and act from that place of basic human goodness, the authentic self.