Worth the Effort

Robert awoke in the middle of the night with a burning fever. The bed was soaked in sweat, and his head felt like it was on fire. He crawled out of bed and staggered a few steps toward the bathroom for some water, but he was so weak and disoriented, he fell to the floor. For the first time in his life, he knew what it must feel like to be on the cusp of death. Just before he passed out, he realized that if he was going to die, he would do so with no one there to help, which horrified him.

He came to in the early morning, still in pain and shaken, but feeling slightly recovered. He remained bedridden for a week and lost ten pounds. During this time, he took a leave of absence from his administrative position in a nonprofit company and convalesced alone in his house, away from everyone. He chose not to visit a doctor, seeing the situation as a sometimes uncomfortable but necessary opportunity to assess his life and make some changes completely on his own terms. For the first few days, the fear of being alone, especially into older age, remained at the forefront of his thoughts. In his weakest moments, he even considered pursuing a relationship the moment he got well, perhaps with someone around his age who was safely ensconced in a respectable profession and of a stable and mature mind.

However, as the days passed, Robert dismissed the notion. He was alone for a reason. Although there were times when he was gripped by loneliness, these moments were rare compared to the liberating, even selfish joy of doing as he chose in his spare time without any distracting intrusions. Robert’s illness made him realize that he would probably continue to live a life of solitude, which was good for everyone concerned. He thought about his past relationships, some longer and others shorter, some still fond memories and others dark visions of confusion and despair. While they had all shaped his identity in positive or negative ways, they were still just memories now. He was finally coming to terms with his natural preferences despite the fact that he had been living the same way for some time.

Robert’s attitude toward work changed even more although this was just an accelerated evolution of what had already been happening. He used to think he was an indispensable employee, a pivotal player, helping to continually actualize a mission in which everyone truly believed. This led him to be hyper-competitive and distrustful toward others in his department. Nearly every day, he wasted time and energy outside of the workplace worrying about his reputation and position. He spent time verbally lacerating or denigrating others behind their backs as if this would make him feel better about himself. The truth was, this gossip sometimes did damage to those he didn’t like or trust, and worst of all, he was doing damage to himself.

Illness forced Robert to review this despicable behavior and rethink how he conducted himself in every aspect of his life. He finally realized that everyone was replaceable, and he wasn’t particularly exceptional or important, nor should he see himself as such. His unwarranted sense of self-importance had amounted to nothing over the years. Robert decided to transform his behavior altogether. Once he returned to work, he committed to never talking negatively about anyone around him while framing conversations in positive and rational terms. For the most part, he managed this without too much trouble. Life had worn him down to a certain degree, no doubt, but he knew that many people his age grew more toxic over time, and Robert wanted nothing to do with that. He wasn’t going to be controlled by fruitless emotions that only made things worse.

Consequently, Robert’s job became more manageable, his health improved, and he began exercising regularly. In fact, he set aside a few hours every day for long walks. As a result, he started befriending a host of kind, friendly people in his neighborhood who had always lived or worked nearby but had remained strangers to that point. This helped him understand that he could choose friendships as he saw fit. For some reason, to that point, he had usually considered himself a victim of his relationships. Now, he was living in the moment, enjoying relaxing interludes and quiet little adventures that left him with memories worth keeping. These were the times that mattered most to him, and they made him a far more agreeable person.

Along similar lines, Robert chose not to let impatience and anger control his behavior. Wasteful, draining emotions weren’t going to ruin his days and nights. At home, instead of feeling sorry for himself and blaming the world for his unhappiness, he sought out engaging diversions. He took to reading anything and everything that might interest him, and he grew especially fond of Dickens, Twain, and Camus. He also discovered Kawabata’s short stories, which were like little prose poems that he could hold in the palm of his hand and puzzle over for hours.

Then, Robert began writing a memoir, starting from childhood. Every weekend, he would drive into the mountains, camp at a spot by his favorite lake, and write for hours. He wasn’t sure how sophisticated his writing would become, but at least he had finally found a lifelong project that would keep him deeply engaged in things that mattered to him. The memoir might never be finished, even to his last breath, but it was an act of love that would always be complete.