Sunday, January 14, 2018

23 and Me and The Meaning of Life

I have spent the better part of my life trying to figure out who I am. When I was still in high school, during the thick of and in the aftermath of my parents’ divorce, I became passionately interested in my family tree. Looking back on it, I am sure I was motivated by a desire to re-find a sense of family that had been ripped out from under me as I entered adolescence, as my family of origin morphed into something that no longer provided me a sense of place and home.

I am sure it was this same desire, these same feelings, which contributed to my decision to join the Mormon Church when I was introduced to it when I was 24 years old. The myth that the Church offered me filled a deep-seated need to know who I am, to know my place in the world. It offered explanations as to why I had experienced abuse as a child, why I had been born into the family I was, why I had “struggled” with “same-sex attraction,” and why my life had unfolded to that point as it had. It also offered a clear roadmap into my future—a path to follow that would give my life purpose, context and clarity.

This myth sustained me through many years of difficulties, challenges, unhappiness and moments of joy. But then it came crashing down as my marriage deteriorated and died, as I came out and as I left the Church and Way that had provided meaning and purpose (but at great cost) to my life. I had resisted divorce to the bitter end because I genuinely believed that my whole adult life would have been a waste, a cruel joke, if everything I worked for during those years came to an end.

But then, through the wreckage, I saw a new path forward. It didn’t offer certainty or clarity or even meaning, but if offered authenticity and a level of self-knowledge and awareness that I had never before experienced in my life. Before too long, Mark entered my life, and with him came a level of happiness that I had never known. Purpose. Love. A path forward that stretched through a beautiful, lush valley that stretched far off into the distance.

Then came the cruel joke—or so it seemed: after everything I had been through in my life, after finally discovering peace and happiness and meaning, Mark would be taken away. He was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer, and an expiration date was put on the life we had discovered in each other. For the next three years, we sucked the marrow out of what little time we had left. And then, he passed peacefully (and with great courage and dignity) to another place, continuing his journey and leaving me to continue mine without him.

Once again, I was faced with an existential question: who am I? What is the meaning of life? Why has this happened to me? What is the path forward? Why has my life seemed so disjointed? Is there a thread of continuity somehow, somewhere?

Interestingly, two occurrences over the past few days came together to teach me some lessons about myself. The first happened when I happened to compare a photograph of myself that was taken a few days ago with a childhood picture that popped up in my Facebook memories.  As I looked at the two photographs, I was struck by the physical similarities that endured over the span of 50 years. But I was also struck by something much more profound: I am that same person. That child was me, is me. I thought of all that has happened in the past half-century in my life that has shaped who I now am; but I am, in essence, the same person pictured in that childhood photograph. That may sound ridiculously self-evident to some; but to someone whose life has seemed more a collection of disjointed experiences than a continuous narrative containing an arc of meaning, it was revelatory.

Then, yesterday, I received the results of my 23andMe DNA tests. I pretty much knew my ancestry. After all, I had spent decades of my life researching my ancestry. But there were those legends of Native American ancestry on both sides of my family that I was curious about. Somewhat disappointingly, the tests revealed that I have less than 0.3% Native American/East Asian ancestry. I am basically one-half British (English, Irish, Scottish) and one-half northwestern European (German, French, Dutch, Scandinavian).

As I took in these results – as well as other health-related results – the realization came powerfully to me: I am who I am. There was no hidden mystery, no “other meaning,” no other clues to who I am. I am … who I am. Again, that may sound ridiculously self-evident to some, but it was revelatory to me.

The larger meaning: life is what I make it. I—together with all the people and experiences in it—make it what it is. As I looked at those two photographs of myself, bookending the life I have lead so far, a sense of gratitude settled upon me for my children, for Mark, for what I have learned, for all that I have in my life. As I contemplated the results of my DNA test, I realized that—contrary to those commercials—knowing my ancestral composition does not provide meaning in and of itself. It is merely part of where I come from. In my early life, I sought meaning there, amongst my ancestors, to fill a hole created by my parents’ divorce. Now, after all I have been through, I find meaning in relationships, in experiences and the simple but profound knowledge that I AM who I am. 

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