When Do We Know Our Life's Work Is Done?

When Do We Know Our Life's Work Is Done? 1

“I feel like I got to do everything I wanted to do,” a friend said to me recently, after receiving a cancer diagnosis. “I don’t really have what you’d call unfinished business.”

“Yeah, well, maybe you feel like your work is done,” I replied. “But I am nowhere near being finished with you.”

This year, six of my close friends and relatives are dealing, variously, with cancer or Covid. All six, thankfully, have good prognoses, and yet it has made them — and those of us in their immediate orbit — assess more carefully how we live and how we’ve lived.

Usually, I love this time of year. But in 2021 that joy is mixed up with sadness, too; December has a way of casting me adrift in time, remembering people who are gone. These days are precious, to be sure. But they can also be a time of loneliness and struggle, especially as we face down yet another variant and Covid isolation.

That conversation with my friend about what it is we live for — and when it’s OK to say you’ve finished your business, whatever that might be — lingers with me.

Do we really ever know for sure what our business here on earth actually is? When do you know you’ve lived a full life? How do you know when your business is complete?

In Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” the ghost of Jacob Marley tells his former business partner Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve, “Mankind was my business.”

“The common welfare was my business,” he moans. “Charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”

Our country would appear to have a lot of work to do, if the goal really is to become a nation of charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence.

That work includes tackling poverty, climate change and racism head-on. But the business before us is not only about politics or economics. It’s also about letting people who are suffering know that they are not alone and that they are loved, that their dreams are possible.

I know all too well what it feels like to suspect that your dreams are too big. When I was young, before I came out as trans, the rituals of the holiday all too keenly reminded me of the ways in which I had not become myself; at the time the fundamental challenge of my life just seemed impossible. I was lucky enough to find a path to my true self. Now I’m here on the outskirts of old age, feeling deeply loved by my family and by my friends — including the six whose health is now in jeopardy.

I know plenty of transgender people whose thoughts turn dark in December because a world of mercy and benevolence seems to have slipped far beyond their grasp.

For a long time, my friend Helen Boyd (the author of “My Husband Betty”) and I ran something we called the December Project. We’d offer, via social media, to call transgender people (and their loved ones) on the phone, people who might be sundered from their families at this time of year, people for whom a single friendly voice might make a world of difference. (We retired the project after it swelled beyond our ability to sustain it. Now some of this same work is done by, among others, the Trans Lifeline, at 877-565-8860.)

Love is no small part of why I want to stick around and why (I hope) my friend will want to stick around, too. After our first conversation, he wrote me to clarify his thoughts: “It’s not about whether my business is finished or not. It’s about believing that everything I’ve already done, I’ve already done. And everything that’s to come, well, that doesn’t exist yet anyhow.” He added, “I don’t have an attachment to climbing hills or achieving things. I’m content to wake up each day.”

I’m content with that too, and part of the reason I’m content is my love for friends like him. The other part is curiosity — and hope. Even with many of the things I have hoped and prayed for in this life already in hand, I’m still hungry to know what happens next.

It puts me in mind of the film “The Princess Bride,” when our hero, Westley, appears to have been slain in the torture chambers of the evil Count Rugen. But he’s carried off to Miracle Max, who finds that, instead of being “all dead,” Westley is merely “mostly dead.” And mostly dead, Miracle Max observes, is still “slightly alive.”

“Hey!” he says, inflating Westley’s chest with bellows. “Hello in there! What’s so important? What you got here that’s worth living for?”

The mostly dead man whispers, “True love.”

Westley is right. Merry Christmas.

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