As children, we are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and when we are young, we make our plans. Life intervenes.
People come and go into our lives — relationships change and end.
We make decisions based on who we are and what we know at the time we make them, but we cannot always foresee the consequences. Accidents happen, and illness arises.
Change is constant, unremitting and unavoidable — just like aging, but unlike aging, it is not so predictable. Many young adults see the randomness in their lives, and for many, this is discouraging.
Some of my patients with the wisdom of years look back on their lives with a different view. Though even more people have entered and exited their lives, which have taken ever more unpredictable turns, they discover greater meaning.
Upon thoughtful review, the events of our lives fall into place and create a coherent narrative. Seemingly random events, meetings and even difficulties, take on greater meaning as they led to the lives were meant to live.
I chose the specialty of Family Practice — or it chose me, I simply answered its call — when I fell in love with the stories shared by patients. As medical students, when we take a history, we learn about family relationships, the pivotal points in every life, the triumphs, the tragedies and the disasters, and ultimately, how each person made sense of the unfolding of their lives.
Most people have to rely on reality TV, soap operas and romance novels to be privy to the intimate details of other people’s lives. With deep listening to real life stories, we learn empathy. Understanding the suffering that others endure, we develop compassion.
In an English literature course, my professor told us that a comedy typically ends with a marriage and a tragedy with a funeral. If this was the case with real life, every one of our lives is ultimately a tragedy, and indeed that’s how a lot of people see their lives: after a certain age — 40, 50 or 60 — it’s a downhill ride to senescence.
I soon recognized that the happiest of my patients told their life stories quite differently. They accepted the same illnesses, accidents and losses in life but also recognized with gratitude the gifts they had received — aspects of their health that continued to thrive, good fortune that came when most needed, and most importantly, love and kindness shared — particularly from family and friends who had passed on.
If tomorrow you met a friend you had not seen since early childhood, how would you tell your life story?
How you reflect upon the past — what you regret and what you appreciate, how you judge others and judge yourself — can impact your happiness in the present and how you continue to see and live your life. Is there another way to tell your story?
Together we weave the tapestry of our lives. It is our shared story and work of art. We are given a canvas and paints — the raw materials and circumstances of our lives. As we live our lives and relate to one another, we build upon what others have built and experience a life intricately connected with the rest of the world. Together we weave a tapestry of inconceivable complexity and beauty that continues to exist beyond our individual lives. This is the art of living — a work of art.
Who writes your life story? From this moment forward, will you accept your calling to be an agent of positive change in the writing of your own life story?
Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician. His Healthwise column appears regularly in this paper.