“We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.” -Confucius
My second life began when I was twenty-six. I at once became keenly aware of how short life is, how it can end suddenly, how none of us is promised tomorrow. This realization was not triggered by a near-death experience or the loss of someone close to me. It came about in the aftermath of divorce, while struggling to build a life for myself and to sculpt an identity. It arose during months of counseling sessions, self-reflection, trying to lift myself out of the hole of depression. I read the words of Eckhart Tolle, echoing the sentiments of the Buddha and other wise people over the millennia: “the present moment is all you have.”
As you’ve probably realized, this is not a law blog. I’ve previously written about why I can’t comment on controversial legal and political issues. As a judicial staff member, I’m governed by ethics rules that prohibit me from opining on legal issues that may come before my court. The ethics folks take these restrictions seriously. I once attended a training in which the speaker said it would be unethical to post a recent Supreme Court decision on social media with nothing more than the comment “interesting case.”
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
I’ve become convinced that curiosity is the solution to most of our problems, individually and globally. How can that be, you ask? How could centuries-old conflicts, climate change, interpersonal strife, and disease epidemics be cured by mere curiosity? Well, you’re on the path to finding answers simply because you’ve begun by asking questions.
One of my favorite TV shows right now is The Last Man on Earth. The show’s premise is that a viral outbreak has killed nearly all people and animals, save a few who were immune or unexposed. At the beginning of the show, we meet Phil Miller, who’s been traveling the country trying to find other survivors after losing everyone he knew. He’s miserable and lonely, and just when he’s about to give up on life, he meets another survivor, Carol. As the series progresses, a few others join them. Phil struggles to adjust to living with people again. The circumstances bring together dissimilar people who likely would not have crossed paths before the virus, and we watch them try to figure out how to live in this new world. The show is quirky, funny, creative, and at times poignant, though it’s not as depressing as you might guess.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of an Easter egg hunt that my dad’s company hosted when I was about three. On a sunny Saturday morning, the employees’ young children gathered in front of a building facing a big lawn where plastic eggs had been scattered. Someone said go, and a mob of older children sprinted onto the grass, grabbing eggs and shoving them into plastic bags. I was younger than most of the kids and wasn’t entirely sure what was happening. The eggs hadn’t been hidden well; it wasn’t a hunt so much as a race. My little legs couldn’t run very fast, and it seemed like every time my searching eyes spotted a brightly colored piece of plastic, someone else got to it before I did. Within a few minutes, all of the eggs had been captured. I had one lonely egg in my clear plastic bag.
We millennials are a generation of side-hustlers. We pursue multiple careers simultaneously. Some of us maintain day jobs as a financial necessity while we work to make our side gigs profitable, but others really love our full-time professions and just happen to love our after-hours work too. As teens, we were encouraged to be well-rounded and involved in everything. The standard advice was that having varied interests and doing lots of things would make us more appealing to colleges and, later, to employers. We were also told from a young age that we could do anything, and we perhaps internalized that message as being able to do everything. In a way, I suppose I’ve been side-hustling since I got my first part-time job at 14. If you count all of my middle school extracurriculars, my full schedule of simultaneous projects and goals started even earlier.
The public radio program On Being, as part of its Civil Conversations Project, recently aired an interview called “Repairing the Breach” (transcript). The show featured a white male Libertarian leader of the Tea Party movement, Matt Kibbe, and a black female millennial progressive leader, Heather McGhee, discussing how we can engage difference and better understand each other.
Near the end of the show (at 44:30), Heather brought up a conversation she had with Gary from North Carolina on a C-SPAN call-in show last year. Gary called into the show, admitted to being prejudiced, and explained why he thought he held certain attitudes. Then he asked Ms. McGhee how he could change, “to become a better American.” McGhee thanked him for his honesty and offered suggestions such as getting to know black families, reading books about the history of African-Americans in the U.S., or attending a black church. The video clip went viral.