Living Well versus Loving Well

I was recently heading home to the family farm in Illinois for Thanksgiving, hurtling through the night sky with the 30,000-foot view. It was a gorgeous, clear evening above the heartland of the U.S. As I looked down on a grid of sparkling lights below, I imagined each as a completely unique iteration of a human life in the 21st Century: Some lucky, some tragic, some delightful, some thorny, some ordinary, some peculiar.

Every life is whizzing through time like a photon of light on its own fickle trajectory: some colliding with others in horrendous ways, others enhancing the lives of others with every breath they take, many just going through the motions, for now, hoping for a time when they can do more for others. It seems so random, and yet sometimes I get comfortable and egocentric enough to think that I can personally add something that will make the world a better place for many.

Just when I think I’ve got my arms around the uncertainty, feeling like I’m on the verge of finding my calling, I am often up-ended by some event that reminds me of the obvious fragile nature of our existence, and I hunker back down to just go about my business quietly. (But I’m in that group that hopes to do more for the world someday.)

Recent events in Newtown Connecticut, when Adam Lanza shot 20 six and seven-year-olds at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, have reminded us all of how much our focus on “living well” is like trusting a house of cards to shelter us from the elements.

I had this thought last night: OK... We all go day to day worrying about living well - being comfortable, pursuing physical perfections, chasing career goals, frightened of scarcity, on guard for any threat to our egos, opportunities, or turf – but I’m asking myself what it would look like if more people worried instead about loving well: being kind when the impulse is to be harsh, rejecting closed minds even when they are on your side, listening to understand (not to respond), and trading our angry fears for fierce compassion.

My children, Louisa, Jens, and Liesl on our annual a backcountry family canoe-camping trip.

My children, Louisa, Jens, and Liesl on our annual a backcountry family canoe-camping trip.

What if the appraisal of a “good life”, well spent, was measured in how many smiles would break out when our name was mentioned, 5 years after we were gone?

I suspect that L. Frank Baum said it best in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: “A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.

What if more of us had the presence of mind to step outside our personal goals of living well, and loving well became the game of life?

Could someone have loved Adam Lanza better?

I don’t know? Should we all be spending hours every day working out, getting our nails done, in long commutes, and heads buried in our cell phones, zooming past people whose words and deeds point to the need for help?

How do all these living well distractions add up when our time here with the people we love is so utterly unforeseeable?

With all the random chaos that we see around us, maybe it is not the amount of time we have here that matters. I’m beginning to think we are doomed to have our expectations dashed if we focus on Living well – its status being 100% unpredictable and 100% fleeting. I’m asking myself instead, what it would look like if we focused on Loving well – its status being 100% reliable and 100% renewable.

Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but instead of walking around quick to anger and feeling victimized, we might just make a conscious choice to move along through our days all buoyed and infectiously contented. We might be great teachers, dentists, pilots, students, business people, parents, and secretaries now, but the possibilities of going around with Loving well as the goal (instead of Living well) might bring along a personal peace-of-mind that would change the world. One courageous, little, composed, kind person at a time.

Just some thoughts to reflect on coming into the holidays, with often contentious family dynamics, and the New Year, with the possibility of resolutions right around the corner!

I sometimes feel like I’m stuck in that episode where Winnie the Pooh and Piglet go hunting and nearly catch a Woozle, but eventually realize that they have been following their own tracks in the snow around and around the tree, and there never were any Woozles (or Wizzles for that matter) at all.

There was only their increasing tracks, the erroneous scary stories they repeatedly told themselves, and the anxiety they invented in the process.   

Love your children, love your family, love your neighbor and most importantly, love the person who doesn’t deserve it.   

Lynda Ulrich