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Where the Wealth Was All Along

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I keep having this idea, not that I think it’s true, that when you die you appear in a talk show studio, and everyone is clapping. A host shakes your hand and asks you to sit down, and the both of you go over how you think you did.

On a large screen, they play a long montage containing some of the more significant moments in your life. You and the host, along with the audience, look on as you make pivotal choices, overcome dilemmas, and meet the people who would become your friends and partners.

The film includes a lot of personality-defining moments, such as when you made the choice to embrace what became your art or your calling, if you had one, or when you took on a long-term responsibility that became a part of who you were. You also get to see, for only the second time, the moments in which your most important relationships went from superficial to true. Everyone in the studio is moved.

The members of the audience have seen many episodes of this show, and were once on it themselves. The overall tone of the production is quite pleasant and earnest. Clearly everyone is happy for you, celebrating your life rather than judging it, and probably remembering similar moments from their own reel.

The montage also covers things you missed—many of of the experiences and relationships that didn’t happen, but could have, if you had accepted or extended a particular invitation, if you had made a particular effort at small talk instead of sinking into another painful silence, if you had bought that piano after all, if you had attended the indoor climbing center’s open house instead of telling yourself you’d go next year.

Of all the missed possibilities, the missed human connections stand out above the other kinds—the missed career and travel opportunities, cultural experiences, even the creative achievements—because by the end of your life the only thing that seemed relevant was the people you loved, or ended up loving. When you died all the value in your world resided there, in the simple and all-important fact that you really knew other people and other people really knew you.  

And this part lasts forever, because, as you learn quickly, you missed many more connections than you made. Maybe fifty or a hundred times more. In fact, many times a wonderful connection with another person was just one simple action away from you, but you pulled back.

Such an incredible wealth of human connection—the greatest part of life, you know now—hinged on a phone call you didn’t bother with, a conversation you shut down, or an apology you’d make in an instant if they sent you back now. There was so much available to you, and it was so much closer than it seemed at the time.

In most of these moments, you pulled away from a budding connection because you wanted to protect yourself from some mildly uncomfortable moment—that you might be bored at an acquaintance’s party and have to excuse yourself early, that a conversation you start might be difficult to escape from, that your act of openness might be taken advantage of. So you stayed home, said no, made excuses, and avoided many conversations. This small amount of uneasiness you avoided, you realize now, cost you many friendships as deep and rich as the best ones you did manage to have.

But you’re not going back, and there’s nothing left to cling to, and nothing left to protect yourself from. So the feeling you get watching all these missed connections isn’t regret, it’s abundance. It seems really wonderful that a human life could have contained fifty undeveloped relationships for every one that was allowed to thrive, given how rich and fulfilling some of those connections were. You’re happy to see that those chances were there, even though you didn’t quite recognize them in time to take advantage.

This all rests fine with you, knowing that you don’t need any more life advantages, because you’re done with the whole thing. Your lifelong wish of being safe from everything you fear has been granted. For the first time there is truly nothing to worry about.

It was all tradeoffs anyway. One thing you didn’t do allowed for something else to happen. But you can’t deny that there is a pattern in these tradeoffs: you frequently chose another dose of the predictable and comfortable over developing a relationship with another person.

After your segment finishes, new guests come on the show and you see the same thing in most of their clips. There are a few people who apparently had no reservations about being open and proactive towards others, and a few people whose reticence clearly helped them get by. But for the most part, you see people who really valued friendship and connection—more than anything else, they would say now—but let it pass them by again and again, because of some comfort-related concern that seemed more important at the time. It is the perfect example of John Lennon’s “making other plans” remark.

Happily, a little bit of this kind of wealth goes a long way. Even one great friendship is enough to make a person feel blessed that life went the way it did. So you don’t feel bad for the new guests. But it is endlessly fascinating to watch people learn that there was so much more out there, just a little bit beyond what felt perfectly safe.

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photo by nikolasphotography

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Adam March 21, 2016 at 11:44 pm

This post reminded me of a movie called Stairway to Heaven / A Matter of Life and Death. I think it was remastered in 1995. Check it out. :-)

Adam March 21, 2016 at 11:52 pm

Oh it appears my Google-foo is weak. A bit more searching reveals I was actually thinking about “Defending Your Life” (1991)

Kenneth March 22, 2016 at 2:25 am

“I keep having this idea, not that I think it’s true…”
Wow, you are a tough nut to crack, for you see, David, the idea is true.
I remember reading Your Erroneous Zones, by Wayne Dyer, years ago. He did not “get it” in that book, but over the years he “got it”. He got that we each create our own reality, 100 percent of the time. When you die, your transition is as easy as stepping into another room, only the perspective changes. If you’re expecting a hosted life reviewal with audience, that will be true for you. If you’re expecting to see Jesus or St. Peter, then that will be your experience.
The set up is that we are all individuated pieces of All That Is, each at once unique yet part of the collective. As such, you have the divine power to create your own life, moment by moment, simply thru your own thoughts and feelings. I’ll see you at your reviewal, laughing with you at how shy and timid you were for not reaching out to grab more of those missed connections.

Rich Keal March 22, 2016 at 3:58 am

I heard once, every thought is a prayer and none go unanswered.

David Cain March 22, 2016 at 9:39 am

That would be really interesting… but how do you know this is true?

DiscoveredJoys March 22, 2016 at 3:33 am

On the other hand…. someone else would have only secondary scenes of relationships and friendships but major scenes of the artwork they produced, or the political events they were involved in, or the children they raised. The true wealth is the activities that allowed them to truly be. And for some people those things may be not socially acceptable.

David Cain March 22, 2016 at 9:44 am

Maybe… part of writing this was fishing for a reaction to the assertion that human connection is the best thing in life. I think most people would agree but I suspect not everyone would.

Invicta March 22, 2016 at 12:14 pm

I had that same thought…. is it so wrong or bad to count non-social activities as being as or perhaps even more valuable than this (somewhat overrated) thing called ‘human connection’? I would love to see more writing that challenged this tired assumption. It makes light of all the wonderous and heavy sacrifices people have made that live on past any human connection. Clearly, not everyone is inclined to serve the moment and their own needs for *human* social interaction.

Joo Heung Lee March 23, 2016 at 10:54 pm

I would agree with you wholeheartedly that human connections are the most important things in life. To tie this in to DiscoveredJoys comment, works of art and political activity are only significant insofar as they touch other people. The diminishment of opportunities for genuine connection is a major problem in our (post-) modern world of gated communities and the Internet, responsible for the proliferation of depression and substance abuse. Meditation helps to remind us of our interconnectedness. But it’s an uphill battle.

Howard May 8, 2016 at 8:26 am

If it were true that some part of life were valuable, or important or worthwhile, then relationship would be as good of a candidate as any for that. Unfortunately, (actually fortunately) this is not true. Nothing in life is important or valuable. We seek importance to be important. It will not happen.

Paula Millhouse March 22, 2016 at 8:35 am

My Mama told me this a long time ago. Thank you for the reminder.

Allyson March 22, 2016 at 8:44 am

I thoroughly enjoyed this read and took a bit of a preliminary review and made a few notes! Thank you for the lesson…who cares if it’s true or not. I love learning, reaching, now.

Mark Lipski March 22, 2016 at 8:56 am

Great post David! As per usual you reach into your creativity bag and take out the most amazing shit. I love reading your posts. You help others look at life a bit uniquely, and that makes you a very special person, and you considerate and sensitive in you assessments and ideas, which really makes a difference. Thank you for all you do and the talents and gifts you so freely share in making a difference in the lives of others. Have a great week!

David Cain March 22, 2016 at 9:45 am

Thanks Mark. And thanks for sharing my stuff with people.

Ani March 22, 2016 at 9:24 am

You know David?

I’ve been thinking a lot about all this stuff… and I feel like us humans tend to feel so guilty about every single possible thing we can. At least I do!

I’ve always been kind of a loner, although I adore people. I also love making art and drawing, and even thinking is so enjoyable and valuable to me.

But I’ve always been feeling like I’m a monster for not wanting to hang out with humans a lot more! But then I think about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and Thomas Edison and DaVinci and all those sweet little souls who ended up changing the world, I bet they weren’t hanging out all the time. They were busy, those guys!

I don’t know how it will feel to die (hopefully it will be a while before I find out!), but I totally want to feel the satisfaction of having produced the art and the ideas that meant the most to me.

(although I do see your point, I should hang out with humans a lot more)

All the best David!

Ani

David Cain March 22, 2016 at 9:54 am

You’re definitely no monster — I also spend most of my time alone and like it that way. I have a limit to how much time I can spend with people.

There doesn’t need to be a tradeoff between producing art/important work and seeing people, but there is a tradeoff between indulging our avoidant habits and creating relationships with others. Those of us who feel quite comfortable alone can get a little too complacent, and deny the value of connecting with others more, because it makes us uncomfortable. The more time we spend alone the deeper this complacency gets. If relationships with other people aren’t important to you at all then I can’t say I can relate.

Ani March 22, 2016 at 11:39 am

Oh dear!

I guess I went too far in the other direction.

I actually love LOVE people, and relationships are super important to me! I should have say that O_O

I guess I’m just trying to find a way not to feel too guilty when I get tired and have the need to retreat like a hermit crab.

But I totally agree with you, we can get complacent when we have this kind of nature. Actually I just paused my audiobook about how to not get depressed and it says HANG OUT WITH PEOPLE! over and over. Haha, humans are awesome, we’re like medicine for other humans…

Thank you David! for the reply and for making me think about all kinds of things *_*

All the best!

Ani

Sandy Parsons March 23, 2016 at 7:06 am

I can relate. I am equally comfortable being alone as with being with other people, and since it takes a lot more work to be with other people, I often have to challenge myself to do the latter. It’s often worth the effort, but if I do it too well, things might start to snowball and I have to pull back again into my alone space.

Zeb March 22, 2016 at 10:19 am

I enjoy your blog (seems like an inadequate word for what you do here) immensely. However, this essay makes me wonder if you, and most everyone else, is too wrapped up in humanity. It’s a large universe out there — infinitely large. There is more to “life,” even a human life, than human relationships. Look at the image above. Those two people might be having a deep conversation over some incredibly good chocolate milk. But look beyond the mere mortals. Look at that landscape. The wealth is out there, it’s everywhere; it’s not just inside of us clever humans. That is my humble opinion. Thanks for listening.

David Cain March 23, 2016 at 8:42 am

I definitely agree there is more to life than human relationships. The point I was trying to make (and maybe didn’t succeed) is that many of us give up a lot in terms of human connection because we want to protect ourselves from social discomfort. When we get to the end of our lives and look back, the relationships will matter and that discomfort will seem really petty.

Howard May 8, 2016 at 12:40 pm

It is interesting that we all relate to the “discomfort” that is there in relationships. What is that discomfort exactly? I think it is that to be in a relationship we have to be fakey as hell, and it is uncomfortable. People have nothing to offer other that a way to imagine that we are special. Get over being special and there will be no more need for people.

Kathleen March 22, 2016 at 10:21 am

I don’t really agree with this entirely.

People have limitations in the time and emotional energy they have to spend on others. It is a much better emotional investment for me to strengthen my relationships with my husband and family. It’s a huge mistake to go out and give other people the impression that you can be a deep friend when you don’t have the time or interest in holding up that end of the bargain.

David Cain March 23, 2016 at 8:46 am

I can understand that. I suppose I was trying to appeal to people who know they are too passive when it comes to developing relationships, yet regularly pass them up in order to feel safe. If you can’t relate you can’t relate.

Seo March 22, 2016 at 11:42 am

I had a chill thinking about my life going up for review at the end of my life. I also spend a lot of time thinking about how things could have gone, had X or Y been different. It would certainly be interesting to get to see all the different paths we could have gone down.

David Cain March 23, 2016 at 8:47 am

Thinking about death is kind of creepy, but it has a way of putting our priorities into relief. What would we change if we were looking back instead of forward?

Dragline March 22, 2016 at 2:34 pm

“All that you’ve loved
Is all you own . . .

I’m gonna take it
With me when I go.”

— T. Waits, “Take It With Me”

David Cain March 23, 2016 at 8:49 am

Putting this song on now…

Dragline March 23, 2016 at 4:11 pm

It’s essentially a love letter to his wife.

Also check out “Come On Up to the House” off the same album: “The world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through . . .”

Edith March 22, 2016 at 6:08 pm

This writing is great but makes me sad because my grandmother died a month ago and I hadn’t realised how important she is to me until she got sick and left forever. I couldn’t even say goodbye, because she was in a respirator and sedated… and I felt awful that I didn’t visit her for two years (she lived 7 hours away) just because I didn’t want to deal with my aunt she was living with. Now I would do anything to be uncomfortable with my aunt and next to grandma. She raised me my first 15 years and I feel I didn’t give her back what she deserved. So, I have been in that studio you talk about, in my dreams, but still alive, seeing all the opportunities I had to make grandma happy, to be with her, which I didn’t take. Awful, awful feeling that will change me forever. I don’t wish that on anyone. So, maybe, we are so bad at relationships, we at least should take care of the people we have and the people we love. Because they are the ones who will make us weep at that studio. Not the strangers.

David Cain March 23, 2016 at 8:53 am

This.. uh, hit home for me. One thing that surprised me about losing loved ones is how unresolved so many things are. Not everything gets wrapped up the way they often are in movies. It’s like the other shoe never drops. It’s a really hard thing.

vatsala March 23, 2016 at 12:48 am

Really needed this at this point of time. It is so simple and yet so difficult to do. Thanks for doing this. Your insights are much needed in today’s world.

David Cain March 23, 2016 at 8:53 am

Thanks vatsala.

Jardley March 23, 2016 at 1:33 am

As always as always as always David, your writing :)

David Cain March 23, 2016 at 8:54 am

:)

TJ March 23, 2016 at 12:05 pm

On the other hand, think of all the meaningless parties, all the time wasted on people and social interactions that led nowhere etc. I think you are right generally speaking but more does not always equal better.

Robert March 26, 2016 at 9:30 am

Hi David this is a great thought provoking blog. Stretching out of one’s comfort zone and welcoming in new experiences can sometimes be tricky but always invaluable in the end.

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