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Your Life is Always Just Beginning

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Famously, The Sopranos ended in a way that infuriated a lot of fans. At an apparently critical moment in the story, the audio and video cut to black. After ten seconds, the credits roll.

The cut gives the viewer the sensation of a dead end. All the momentum and meaning of the story run straight into a wall, beyond which nothing can be known, creating a helpless feeling in the viewer. What happens next? Where did they go? [Despite the abundant criticism, this ending is actually brilliant, and is explained fully here.]

The opposite of this—a cut-from­black beginning—happens in every series and every movie. It has to, because the story has to begin somewhere.

At the outset, you know nothing. All you can do is watch what emerges from the darkness, and start to figure out where you are. In Memento, the first thing you see is a hand holding a Polaroid photo, shaking it to make the image appear. In The Godfather, the voice of a man with an Italian accent appears before his face does. “I believe in America,” he begins.

The standard movie opening is the opposite of a Sopranos-style dead end, and it gives us the opposite range of feelings. Instead of the sensation of running out of road, we get feelings of abundance and possibility. One of my favorite feelings in the world is settling into a couch, or a cinema seat, watching the opening credits of a movie. It’s like a newly-opened box of chocolates.

With a movie, you always have to put together the story from a standing start, because you’re already in the middle of the characters’ lives. You can’t actually see what happened before the first image appears, but you can piece it together through exposition. The character is shown in a divorce lawyer’s office. Another character asks him if his mother is still sick. His mantle is adorned with martial arts trophies. Everything you know about the character’s past is learned in the present. 

Stories begin in the middle, and the middle is always now

Real life is like this too. This feeling of “beginning in the middle” happens, to some degree, every time you wake up. One moment you’re in a dream world, where nothing is real, and the next moment you discover you’re lying in a bed. Sometimes your dream was so vivid and disorienting that you must take the first few seconds of your day to put together your own backstory: Oh yes, it’s Tuesday. I work in an accounting office. I am in a strained relationship. Friday is a holiday. There is leftover lasagna in the fridge.

Back in 2009, in this blog’s second-ever article, I struggled to relate a bizarre experience that left me infatuated with this cutting-from-black feeling. I was sitting at dinner with my mother and grandmother, and had the sensation that my life had just begun at that moment, as a 28-year-old man, with a home, a job, friends, relatives, and a backstory. I said it felt like “the universe had just rebooted, and that that dinner scene was where I found myself when the picture returned to the screen.”

It was fascinating, but not disorienting—I knew how to speak and act, and I could remember what had apparently happened earlier in the day, and earlier in life. But life itself seemed like a brand new proposition, as if I’d been waiting on deck for a thousand years, and I finally found myself at the plate. There was so much detail to be noticed, so much possibility to be explored. The world felt like a playground, and to be alive in it felt like an unexpected gift.

You can get a hint of this “playground effect” by imagining that the moment you’re in now is the beginning of your life. The curtain has just come up on this particular scene, whatever it is, after having been down for a thousand or a million years. You can recall your backstory at will, but just like in a movie, nothing really happened before this opening shot. This is the beginning, not the middle, and you’re free to act for the first time.

Conceivably, life could actually be like that. We presume that our lives start the moment we exit the birth canal. But they don’t really. You didn’t discover your own volition, your own personhood, until quite some time after that, at toddler-age, or possibly later, and none of us remember it anyway. In that sense, we kind of “fade in”, somewhere in the middle.

So wherever the start was, we missed it. Because we were never aware of life beginning, it was never impressed on us that something seriously amazing did indeed begin, and is still going. It’s possible you never quite realized you’re alive, or at least how alive you are, in terms of how different being alive is from not being alive. It’s like being born with the most ridiculous entitlement complex possible, and being totally oblivious to it. Snapping out of that kind of fugue—like I did involuntarily that time at the dinner table—could be considered the beginning of your life.

In his books and speeches, Douglas Harding emphasized the point that we might live and die without ever noticing the basic yet unbelievable fact that we are “occurring”. In one talk, he points to the audience in a gesture of mock-scolding, and says, “You know, you needn’t have happened. You needn’t have happened, but you did happen.”

…and we’re live, folks

When you can look at any moment as though it’s the first moment, if you can really see your surroundings as the opening frame in a story, the world gains a certain playfulness. Suddenly your problems seem more interesting than annoying, the way another person’s problems always seem easier to solve than your own. It’s almost impossible to be impatient with others, because it’s fascinating that they’re even there. You still care about outcomes, but it’s far easier to relax around the possibilities. Any uptightness about making things go a certain way seems a bit silly, because it already seems unlikely that anything is even happening, and that you’re at the helm.

In Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury’s brilliant novel about the indescribable feelings of Summer, a boy is play-wrestling in the grass when he discovers something profound: he is alive. He had always “known” this, but only in the same dull way we know—without feeling it—that we’re standing on a planet floating in space. This time he feels his aliveness with full force, in his temples, his pores, the twin heartbeats in his wrists. He shouts it aloud, several times, and his father and brother don’t get it.

Another literary genius, David Foster Wallace, might be best known for his “This is Water” commencement address. The talk opens with a joke that encapsulates its whole theme. Two young fish are swimming along. An older fish, headed the other way, asks them, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two of them continue on in silence until one of them asks the other, “What the hell is water?”

The central principle in the speech is subtle and profound: we can’t know something’s value until we can conceive of its absence, and there’s nothing easier to overlook than the experience of being alive, precisely because it’s everywhere. Because of the way our anatomy works, we don’t get to experience what non-living is like, so we can easily live a whole life without ever knowing what we’ve got. But we can get hints at what we’ve gained, and will one day lose, by imagining what it’s like to cross the boundary at life’s beginning.

In other words, being alive seems like no big deal, until you can imagine, for a moment, what it means not to be alive: no experience, and no story. When you can see the present moment as though the camera has just started rolling, you get a hint of just how rich it is, and has always been.


Photo by Joe del Tufo

Nick O'Kelly October 11, 2015 at 11:30 pm

Wow. I’ve never commented on anything before…as in ever…
This is a tremendously empowering way of experiencing life. I applaud you David.

Mostly, people behave as though they are trapped in their story – they are somewhere in the middle, dragging a history behind them…and this history holds in it a sense of determinism, though there is a mystery of how and when the story will end. Experiencing life somewhere in the middle of the story, they strive to change or redefine or reinvent; to be better or do better or become better.

But that’s not reality. It is a dream. It is a thought.

The reality is that we invent each moment all the time. We invent ourselves in each moment all the time.

It reminds me of the teachings in I Am That. Who are you without your thoughts, your emotions, your memories, and perceptions? That is who you really are.

And That that you really are…can be or do or experience anything you choose.


David Cain October 12, 2015 at 9:03 am

This way of engaging with the moment has a lot of implications– about habit and momentum, about gratitude, about meta-awareness, about the nature of the self, the nature of time… it’s a whole grab bag of new angles on the experience of being alive.

The Usurper October 12, 2015 at 2:11 am

Great article. I often feel that way when I’m travelling. I like to imagine that I am in a movie or a video game, and the scene opens with me in my current situation – on a boat, climbing down a waterfall, or on the back of a motorbike. It is a very powerful feeling.

David Cain October 12, 2015 at 9:05 am

Traveling has a way of waking us up. Too much is unfamiliar for us to spend much time in autopilot. I think we are always seeking this feeling, not just through travel, but sport, dancing, drugs, books, movies, etc.

chris October 12, 2015 at 2:28 am

The past days I’ve been struggling with editing my first ever documentary I shot earlier this year. It will be my first full length project. So it’s really a big step for making my dreams come true. Somehow it’s hard right now for me to motivate myself and I can’t really tell why.

But I guess you’re pretty right saying that this may just be the beginning. :)

Thanks for this great article, david!

David Cain October 12, 2015 at 9:06 am

Yeah… pretend you just woke up and you’ve been handed this backstory: filmmaker working on important project, has not been making progress. How would you handle today, if that were the case?

Zoe October 12, 2015 at 2:31 am

I’m glad you wrote this article, cause it puts a more positive spin on something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Sometimes, I just find the idea of being constantly alive quite exhausting. I don’t want to die right now (or anytime soon really), but it does make me feel like one day, it’ll be okay when I do. I don’t really know if that makes sense… I guess it sounds a bit depressing, sorry. :-(

zsouzsou October 12, 2015 at 4:51 am

Hi Zoe,
just wanted to send a brief shoutout from s.o. who – I reckon – understands you. For me, there was/is a feeling of “been there, done that” and it takes some effort for me to get back to this feeling of “freshness” in life. But I’m fiercely working on regaining it and send you my best wishes for your road ahead.

Zoe October 12, 2015 at 10:18 am

Thanks zsouzsou! The thing is, I do love life and I try to be optimistic as much as possible, but sometimes I can’t help feeling a bit “meh, when do I get a rest from this?”… Thank goodness the world is filled with wonders to distract us from our daily problems!

David Cain October 12, 2015 at 9:14 am

Life is exhausting. We always have to be “on”, and that is intrinsically stressful. You are definitely not alone. I can’t think of anything worse than the idea of life lasting forever.

Zoe October 12, 2015 at 10:22 am

Yeah, I think a large part of life’s beauty lies in the fact that it’s short.
I guess I’m feeling like this because I discovered some health issues recently and I’m struggling to cope with the idea that I’m never going to be able to fix them completely. Sometimes I think “so what’s the point then?”, but then I read articles like yours and feel better. It definitely helped me appreciate my morning more, doing simple things and concentrating on them fully.

Mary October 12, 2015 at 1:18 pm

Hello Zoe,
Thank you for bringing this side of the topic up. I am now in my 60s and have had many times that I came to call “the down times”. I felt tired, wondered if I was missing something that everyone else was seeing…etc. After a few of these I realized that I actually spent the time being very introspective and came out of them knowing myself better and feeling more spiritual. Now, I don’t mind them so much as I know I will emerge more content and stronger.

Librecom October 12, 2015 at 3:25 am

Thank you again. I reminded me of my days as a young adults or late teen ager when my emotions were on a rollercoaster and I was to poor someday to do anything i wanted. I would sit all day on my bed looking at the ceiling and feeling sorry for myself. The next days was always a feast. The colors, smells, sounds were always more intense, more vivid and more pleasant. When i started to meditate years later was I able to replicate this without the rollercoaster emotions that used to go with it.
Thank you for again, a well thought and written article. I wish I could write like you. I am always amazed as I read you because I never guess what the next sentence will be, but i know exactly what you are talking about. Doesn’t make sense probably :).

David Cain October 12, 2015 at 9:19 am

It makes sense to me, and I appreciate it. Thank you. This is one of those articles that touches on something that’s hard to write about and most people probably can’t relate to, so it means a lot to me to know that it resonates.

trillie October 12, 2015 at 3:44 am

Ha, this reminds me of when I was in my early to mid teens, when I was always pretending to be in a movie (I was an extremely lonely kid). It made it so that whenever I was being bullied, I could think to myself “oh, it doesn’t matter; you’re nothing but an extra”. Heh :)

David Cain October 12, 2015 at 9:27 am

I think there’s a lot of perspective to be gained from doing exactly that. Being bullied, for example, could seem more like a crucial character-building development than a meaningless injustice if it’s framed as part of a story.

zsouzsou October 12, 2015 at 4:46 am

Hi David,
thanks again for your efforts in expressing and sharing your epiphanies.
Similar to you I also once had a moment when an inner voice told me (in a nixing way) “this is not my life” – this being the exact moment when I took over the helm, when “the water” for the first time was tangible and I became the Captain. Since that day, I always knew that this was a magic moment, an awakening – but it took me up to your story here to realise the entire quality of that moment. Thus, once again, a big thank you for sharing your moments with us!

David Cain October 12, 2015 at 9:28 am

Aye Captain!

audrey October 12, 2015 at 6:56 am

I always think that I’m the only one that thinks and feels a certain way. A little lonely really because it makes it hard to share things you know people won’t get. Clearly you are a kindred spirit. Thank YOU for sharing and making us realize we are not alone. It’s great to be alive. :)

David Cain October 12, 2015 at 9:30 am

I am really interested in people’s internal lives, because we so rarely see them depicted. Thoughts are hard to capture in film, but we can get close with the written word.

Lorrie Beauchamp October 12, 2015 at 8:12 am

David, I always enjoy your posts and your expansive perspective. I wanted to thank you for this one, because it touches me at a time of “old fish” relevance. I’m sad to see so many of my friends nearing the age of 60 and just undergoing the motions of a life spent doing what was expected of them, and not FULLY appreciating the potential within themselves. Not all of us will have this realization, I guess, but I feel so incredibly fortunate to be alive every day. I’m a caregiver for two parents with Alzheimer’s, and I can testify to the fact that, even after we lose our memories, we still maintain our love of life and living. Life is magical, and every moment is a gift.

David Cain October 12, 2015 at 9:31 am

Thanks Lorrie. That’s one thing this perspective does–it forces you to look at the “motions” in a context that makes you question them. Why am I living like this? What’s the story here?

Nancy October 12, 2015 at 8:49 am

I think this explains the bewildering-to-those-who-haven’t-lived-it phenomenon of the joy often expressed in the lives of those who have survived a serious accident or life-threatening illness. We just feel so lucky to have another day. My own moment was coming to in a hospital bed, surrounded by my family, and thinking “Thank God I can at least talk to them. Who needs a left foot anyway?” Great writing like yours David will spread this aha-ness so that hopefully people won’t have to be hit upside the head to get it. And will remind those of us who have lost the magic just what a miracle this whole experience is.

David Cain October 12, 2015 at 9:34 am

It’s hard to gain perspective about what it means to be alive, because life has always been granted. But I guess you can come really close to that end-boundary, and sense what could be lost. There are a lot of accounts of people saying the best thing that ever happened to them was to have a serious accident or serious illness, because of the perspective they gained.

Nancy October 12, 2015 at 9:59 am

I enjoy reading what you write so much. Just wanted to say thanks especially for this one.

David Cain October 13, 2015 at 8:36 am

Thanks for reading Nancy.

Matt October 12, 2015 at 11:08 am

This is one of your more thought-provoking articles in recent memory. What a great way of framing the opportunity we have every day to start a new storyline for ourselves. It’s so easy to be oblivious to it and let inertia take over.

Lee October 12, 2015 at 9:14 pm

The timing of this was superb – no pun intended! Many things just ended for me personally and professionally. Needless to say I was feeling like “now what?”. This new perspective conceives of the fact that I am alive (what water?) and things are just getting started.

Quite insightful and well written. Thank you!

Matt October 12, 2015 at 11:31 pm

Excellent post, David! Very moving.

terentius October 13, 2015 at 12:50 am

Hi David,
you have really surpassed yourself on this one. I like the theme now being the middle of the story, that i could rebooting my life, an live to enjoy the ride.

Harnoor October 13, 2015 at 8:45 am

Hi David,
This is one of the best articles on this site.Really loved reading this one.

Free to Pursue October 13, 2015 at 10:50 am

Implicit in your writing is the hint of watching your reaction and your subsequent action(s) to the realization of an awakening “in the middle of things”. That’s a bit how I feel at the moment, watching myself navigate a difficult time in my life, with some fascination I might add.

Being able to watch ourselves in what feels like the third person seems to makes us better problem solvers in our lives. It feels like we can notice our state as much as we can live it and live through it. We can notice and feel the emotions at the same time. This discovery is about the most powerful one I can wish for anyone. It turns us from a victim of circumstance to one who flows around and through it.

Great post! I appreciate the reminder.

Shonna October 13, 2015 at 10:58 am

Wow. Wow. Wow. Gorgeous. Thank you. This paired nicely with this piece I’ve been in love with lately.


Tawcan October 13, 2015 at 3:26 pm

Wow what an excellent post, really enjoyed reading this article.

Rose Costas October 14, 2015 at 12:33 am

Awesome post and I love the way you think about life. It makes me think about my life and how much opportunity I have to make things right. I honestly think the reason we are not clear on when in fact our life started is because it was never intended for us to have such a beginning. As you so rightly put it every day is a new beginning.

Jay October 14, 2015 at 8:15 am

I don’t think I have ever replied to a post of yours but sometimes it is hard to ignore such strange coincidences. I recently felt exactly like this.

After leaving my job to do a mixture of travelling and volunteering (photographer), I spent my birthday in a way I had never imagined I would. Before this it has always been a combination of family meals and nights out with friends, half way across the world makes this a little trickier..

Anyway, as the clock struck 12 and my official birthday started, I was getting a massage in a beautiful city with a friend I had met that same day. We went for coffee in the morning, hit it off and spend the next two days doing whatever we felt like. At 12 I was struck with an important feeling, what if my life started right here?

It’s a strange feeling, bittersweet and full of all sorts of specific emotions that are hard to pin down. Thank you for writing so skilfully about it :D (as I cannot haha!)

Delma McConnell October 14, 2015 at 9:20 am

As of this week, I’m unemployed but have begun a new personal project to reboot my attitude, life experience, and personal and professional circles. Until now, the understanding that each day is new has been a mostly intellectual one because of my total immersion in routine. Nine years of routine. That my position was eliminated is a tremendous gift I have no intention of wasting.

The best way for me to open life up to the surprise and richness that’s always appearing is to purposely examine and change the smaller habits. It’s an easy way to begin. Once I begin to unravel the unconscious knots of routine, I’m sure the world will appear fresh simply because it’s gone unnoticed.

Thanks for this. And thanks to your commenters for notes that inspire.

Dan October 14, 2015 at 12:35 pm

“Make peace with the universe. Take joy in it. It will turn to gold. Resurrection will be now. Every moment, a new beauty.

And never any boredom!”

– Rumi

Dan October 14, 2015 at 1:45 pm

This also got me thinking of my favorite part in the whole Lord of the Ring trilogy – that is, the very near “beginning” of The Fellowship of the Ring (just past the prologue) when we’re first transported to the Shire. Certainly has something to do with the beautiful/lush setting and cinematography, and playful/light/buoyant score, but perhaps what it comes down to is that deep/profound sense of newness (of both experiencing the well-crafted movie and story to be told) and the feeling of “possibility and abundance.” Thanks to the clarifying terms of essay, it’s sort of brought that realization to light.

On a lighter NSFW note, the first “fading in” portion reminded me of this great bit from Louis CK:

Louis CK – First Memory

JN2 October 14, 2015 at 12:44 pm

A Sufi poet said it this way:

The place where you are right now
God circled on a map for you
wherever your eyes and arms and heart can move
Against the earth and the sky,
the beloved has bowed there-
The beloved has bowed there knowing
You were coming…


Great start to the movie :)

Dan October 14, 2015 at 2:55 pm

In the middle of a wonderful talk by Manly P Hall in which he discusses the beauty, wisdom, and insight of the Persian poets/Sufi mystics…

Manly P. Hall – Secret Language of Persian Poets

…he even touches on “the doctrine of the void” and the enlivening experience/perspective of the “absence of being” in somewhat the same way as discussed in this essay.

Anonymous October 14, 2015 at 1:19 pm

Long time reader of your blog, first time posting. Thanks for always being an inspiration. My ego often makes it difficult for me to click on the bookmark for this site (it doesn’t want me to think too deeply), but I’m glad I did today. I just got laid off from my job the other day for the first time ever, and your idea of a “fade-in from black, this is just the beginning of the story” is a great way for me to change my perspective on the situation. Thanks and keep up the fantastic writing!

Carl October 14, 2015 at 10:30 pm

Thank you for this, David – somehow your posts seem to be timed just right. Life seems to be in a rut right now, especially at work, and this is just the antidote to the ennui which seems to have set in.

Fel October 15, 2015 at 1:28 am

I believe the physical counterpart to this wonderful sense of being alive anew is our whole-body awareness, our felt presence, the actual sensing of our aliveness. It’s likewise easy to completely lose awareness of, like a fish in water. And feeling that ‘click’ into awareness of our physical presence, our beingness, is also a magical, peace-inducing, grounding experience. I think I am describing the same thing you are, maybe just from a slightly different perspective, or way to get there.

Dale October 15, 2015 at 8:15 am

I realized reading this that so many movies “fade up” on the ending of something. The story begins with the end of something . . . a job, a relationship . . . or the loss of something important. It almost forces you to think of the end of something as the beginning of something else — “one door closes another opens” as the saying goes.

Fazl Molana October 18, 2015 at 9:16 am

Hi David,
You’ve done a great job at articulating a concept I’ve played with for years: that we aren’t actually “born” when we exit the womb. That until we’re in our 20’s everything about our lives and behaviors is either pre-programmed or taught to us by agents beyond our volition, choice or control. We don’t choose our genetics, or our parents, or the neighbourhood we grow up in, or our childhood friends, or our religion or our culture or nearly anything else for that matter — and all of these factors are instrumental in shaping the decisions we make. If the inputs to our decisions are beyond our will, then so too will be the outputs. I was “born” when I was 23 – I was walking to my Physiology class and lamenting at all the “could’ve been’s” and “what-if’s” in my life when it finally hit me: so many of the decisions I had made up until that point were based on thought patterns and information that were imposed upon me. I realized that if I had lived a thousand times over that I would make the exact same decisions precisely a thousand times again – no less. At that moment I had a realization similar to yours at the dinner table: that I had just faded into existence . I’m 32 now and I feel as though I’ve only been alive for 9 years . In these past 9 years I’ve investigated these inputs, challenged them, redefined and rebuilt them in a way that more closely resembles the type of person I’d like to be, not the type of person I would’ve otherwise been.
Thank you, David.

Kuanysh Bayandinov October 31, 2015 at 1:25 am

Thank you, greatly enjoyed!

Living in a moment is something we learn or start to comprehend in life when we meet a trigger situation that forces us to reevaluate. Your words described it perfectly. Bravo!

diwali 2015 chennai November 5, 2015 at 10:07 pm

Even as we move toward the eastern area regarding the
country, we could notice vivid alterations in Diwali festivities.
Western Bengal celebrates Kali Puja accounting to Durga’s triumph over Bakrasura in the shape of Goddess Kali.

dieting hcg January 7, 2016 at 8:42 am

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