I’ve always had an aversion to the word precious. It sounds fragile and cloying in my mouth, like the way it’s used to talk about cute babies: “Isn’t she presh-uss?” There is something nose-raisingly snobbish about the word when it describes jewelry: “Made with only precious stones…” But the adjective is defined by Merriam-Webster as meaning of great value, highly esteemed. These are not bad things; adding this adjective to anything should elevate it.
I recently drove behind a car with the bumper sticker, Life is precious. Immediately, and defensively, I translated the line to be an anti-abortion statement, though there was nothing else to support that assumption. So, I reconsidered it as a more benign reminder. After all, I was on my way to see Cheryl Strayed talk about what you want to do with your life before you die at an event sponsored by the Brattleboro Area Hospice.
I’m not sure I always felt life was precious. As an angsty, struggling teenager, I railed against my mother with the predictable, mean phrase, “I never asked to be born!” My early adulthood held as much pain as joy, and I often felt like a failure. Many, many times, I have sensed I was doing life all wrong. I’m a diagnosed functional depressive, oft trudging through daily responsibilities like a burdened ox (fittingly, my animal in the Chinese zodiac): reliable, but weighted.
Ironically, my current relationship with living — filled with great love and a surprising abundance of optimism — is directly correlated to having experienced the premature loss of several dear friends and family members. The shocking, early, awful deaths of people I adored made me recognize the value of my life. The not-living of others has made me both scared and grateful, so I find myself fueled by the understanding that life really is quite fragile. When one embraces the knowledge that being here is time-limited and frighteningly uncertain, it can paralyze or be a motivating force, the kind that made me want to drive to Vermont on a weeknight to listen to a conversation about doing what we care about in whatever unknown time we have left.
In a world where medical intervention and lifestyle choices are relentlessly pursued in order to extend life as much as possible, not wanting to live, not treating the brief time we have here as precious — in fact, wanting to find a way out of all of it, wanting to die — is a true testament to the suffering that life can bring; that some people desperately want their lives to end reminds me just how brutal life can be.
Suicide has been the exit strategy of several friends, one recently — a punch to the gut, to the heart. Knowing they wanted to leave this life as soon as possible is harrowing to me, and imagining the extent of their agony creates its own expansive ripple of pain. Misery so profound that it incites self-inflicted violence is breathtaking. There are days I find the desire flummoxing, and others when I can (almost) imagine it.
But I want to remind everyone I love that, despite life’s awfulness, there is still delicious food and rocking music and amazing books and sunsets. Sunsets! Isn’t it enough some days to love the taste of red wine or the way the dog’s fur feels under your fingers? To be embraced by a good friend or smell fresh bread baking or watch a funny movie? Can’t these small wonders balance things out?
How can all the beautiful little things not be enough?
How can the fact that so many others loved you and viewed your life as valuable, as esteemed — as precious — not be be enough?
Clearly, sometimes, one’s life is so far from beauty, so far from love, it’s just not enough. What one person treasures is, after all, another person’s trash, even in this regard.
“Grief is love,” Strayed said to the crowd plainly that night, describing her own losses. My brain darkly shot to the equally efficient line from The Princess Bride, “Life is pain.” These truths are holding hands, side by side, in my mind, with equal weight.
And I find myself today both haunted and inspired by Mary Oliver:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”