There is no ideal life. There is only the life that you have chosen freely.
Sometimes, a line arrives fully formed in my life, like a little package I am meant to carry until it melts into my own weight. Until the truth becomes the carrier, until something is known.
What have I freely chosen?
There is no banal answer to this question. No reply that could not break me.
Leibniz famously declared, in defense of a God of theodicy, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Later, Voltaire retorted, “If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?” Much later, philosopher Alvin Plantiga argued that it's unlikely we live in the best of all possible worlds, because we can always imagine a better one. Add one more person who saves puppies, adopts orphans, or composts food, and the world is better than it was before that human tilted the equation.
All these arguments stand on shaky ground. Besides our inability to know the "good," we can always imagine a "worse." I don't believe this has anything to do with the empirical reality of "better" and "worse," but is rather built into the human imagination. We posit "better" and "worse" to build bridges across bodily divides and into alternative futures. My neighbor is there and I am here, and one of us stands in a more advantageous position. This can be the beginning of empathy, altruism, or even political action. If I am in a "better" position, I'll offer my neighbor a dinner, a check, or maybe just a listening ear. If I am able to see such inequality on a mass scale, I may fight to end injustice. In the public realm, "better" and "worse" are essential metrics for determining the reality and shortcomings of equality.
They're essential to paving futures, too. If I can imagine the worse state of having lost my home, then I am more likely to make my mortgage payments on time. If I can imagine the better state of having a more fulfilling career, I may work by night to develop my talents for another path. I may even call my current life better in comparison to the past in order to learn from my mistakes or motivate a state of present satisfaction. In the public realm, "better" and "worse" mediate spatially disparate realities. In the personal realm, they mediate temporally disparate realities.
If you have read some of my other essays, perhaps you know where this is going. Space and time likely exist only in a contingent, second-order sense. And the first order? Without time unfolding us through space, there is no past or future to compare. Without space demarcating separate bodies, the world collapses into a single point of consciousness. Since time and space are embedded in our mental architecture, we can't really imagine this reality, though it can be sensed in contemplative experience.
Can you glimpse what this means? For one, your ideal life must elude you, no matter how hard you work or how much you sacrifice. As long as you live stretched across space and time, you carry "better" or "worse" as comparative companions. A worse life always threatens, and a better life always beckons from the horizon.
Elsewhere there are children raised in abusive homes, or in dcesperate poverty, or weighted beneath the realities of racism: elsewhere, there's a much worse.
And elsewhere, there are children born into families with the love, maturity, and means to help each reach their highest potential: elsewhere, there's a much better.
Somewhere a better, and somewhere a worse. But I am nowhere but here. And if I were there, in the other “where,” I would wonder if there was a better “here” (there would be, as well as a worse). And beneath these abstract comparisons lies the reality that I can never know what is better or worse for me. An inevitability that I wonder, and an impossibility that I should know.
There is no ideal life. There is only the life that you have freely chosen.
I have not freely chosen this life.
I made the decisions I could given my knowledge and possibilities. Both knowledge and possibilities were ruthlessly pared by (male) religious authorities. Not just another religion, Mormonism is all-consuming, and mental control is baked into the theology, the institution, and the community. We left a few years ago, but a lifetime of religious abuse is not so easily put to bed.
Many who leave later in life wonder if they have to burn their entire lives to the ground. "Nothing was real," is the common refrain. "I had no part in the decisions 'I' made."
Of course, we get to choose small things within little boundaries. But the identity is long gone by the time a decision is to be made— "an enemy to God, after all," and so the self is surrendered, through psychological conditioning and social pressure, to an institution who promises a safe trip to heaven, even if "I" am unidentifiable by the time I arrive.
"Maybe I wouldn't have gotten married at all," my husband tells me, as we settle into bed. This doesn't offend me. We practice a policy of radical honesty in order to stay sane.
"I know," I reply, sensing those familiar flickers in my chest, intimations of other lives. The "active LDS" dating pool was small, and I was continuously pressured to marry quickly, before I graduated BYU and my options were even fewer. Or, more gravely, before I was tempted to engage in sexual sin. Given another life, perhaps I would have married someone else, someone more like me. "I like being married, but I would have waited, I think."
"Yeah." And the conversation closes once again.
I flick off the bedside lamp and pull the covers over my body, a hundred other Sondras receding behind my eyelids. How many unborn "mes" died before passing the threshold of consideration. Freedom accumulates as fear recedes. And yet, new freedoms inherit old decisions— from societies, parents, former selves. Now that we're older, freer, what can be done with all this unlived life?
This is the unique weight of having lived another person's life: not a burden of regret, but— as someone commented on this Instagram post— feeling "the intensity of a life...robbed of regret." We were not even allowed the messiness of making mistakes, as only strict obedience could carve the one true path towards one true happiness.
I would never want to counter Mormonism's absolutism with absolutes of my own. I cannot claim that Mormonism is bad for everyone, or in all the same ways. Some Mormons maintain a pragmatic relationship with the faith rather than an all-consuming one (I know people whom I believe have a healthy relationship to the faith). Because it's not an ordinary religion that allows for various levels of commitment, a pragmatic relationship is difficult to maintain— but it's easier in some parts of the country, or for those raised in more relaxed families. I will simply say that the truth claims used to justify control are not historically sound. And because the institution obscures its history, most members aren't given an opportunity to choose their obedience freely.
When people wonder if I'll someday regret choosing to leave "the one true church," I can only fumble for a reply. Leaving was my first fully-free choice. How can I regret the beginning of regret? All things are possible now—even a God freely chosen. Even a life joyfully lived.
When you see how little living you were allowed, it would be difficult to return to such narrow confines. Luckily, I was still young when I chose to leave— time remains to revise this life. Many leave in their 40s, 50s, and on. And yet, a companion truth elbows in: there's no "too soon" or "too late," only the timing you have chosen.
And there's always time to begin choosing.
A "one true" anything is an assault on human freedom. But absolute statements often sound true because they stem from a reality that becomes distorted when entering the realm of speech and belief.
The reality is that there is a One beneath our many shifting forms and identities. This unity possibilizes multiplicities and meanings.
When we forget this unity, religions arise.
But truths that are forgotten do not go to sleep; they simply morph into mischievous forms. When Oneness is lost, it's brought into the sphere of the Many. Oneness become visible, rational, or believable is a "limitation of oneness," not the One.
Although absolutes promise unity and certainty, they draw us further from the unspoken, unsought ground beneath our feet.
Can you feel this ground? Can you trust it?
Sometimes my life wanders outside its home, wondering about alternatives, seeking dissatisfaction. So much lost, and for no good reason.
And sometimes, just as sudden as a wind-swept trip to the nearby sea, a bone-deep contentment slams into me, whispering "already whole, already now." Otherwise and elsewhere recede. The door of my always-home swings wide open with a salt-laced breeze. And I think: I will choose this life over and again until time unslips itself, spiraling back into a fullness of simultaneity.
Eternal recurrence, Nietzsche called it: an acceptance of one's life that exceeds that life, a willing that each event should be repeated again and again—and here I imagine Nietzsche's childhood piety, lifelong loneliness and mountain wanderings, ending with that horse in Turin and his loss of sanity— until nothing is left, perhaps, but the will who wills this "heaven or hell."
Spun round the wheel of time, ordinary succession dies. For, to live something "again" is to double that experience by overlaying the past with present eyes. To experience it "again again" is to triple the experience, on and on until time accumulates such weight that it grinds to a halt. And here I imagine Nietzsche suspended midair, stroking that absurd mustache as he observes a life happening beneath him.
But who is this Nietzsche who watches his life, while another Nietzsche lives it? We can all watch our lives, sometimes from a great distance. This gap of identification gestures towards this: I am not the body, nor the mind. I am the one who watches.
A self is a fragile, built up phenomenon.
Among other things, Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage describes the genesis of a self-identity. When a toddler sees her reflection in the mirror, she grasps something that other animals do not: somehow, that image is her. She does not just exist in the wholly immanent realm of her sensating body; she also exists as an image out there in a world of other objects. The experiences of a body come in pieces, but the image is whole, an imaginary ideal that unifies the chaos of an pre-selved reality. The child sees herself as outside herself and identifies with that external object— thus begins egoic identification. From this first inside-outing, from this foundational alienation, she will never recover.
My egoic self is stretched out spatially, over a shared external world, necessitating such abstract comparisons as "better" or "worse." It's also stretched out temporally, through past-glancing and future leaping. In the arc of past, present, and future, I pin myself to various places. I am a writer because I have written and because I will continue to write, whether or not I am writing now. I am a mother because I have a child whom I will mother as long as we're alive. Thus stretched across time, I stitch together an identity.
Distraction is so seductive because it stretches the self further outward, far from the rest that roots in a primal deathing/ lifing. Each day, I kill my presence perpetually, flinging my attention from task to task. Yet, presence always hums beneath, an immutable no-thing impervious to my world-thinging, my attention-flinging. If I sit in full attention, the strings of identity snap back from their abstract unfoldings, landing themselves in the disintegrating now. Every focused act is a little death.
Like focus, joy is one of life's great terrors.
A moment enjoyed to its outward limits breaks the thread of time itself, diffusing to enrich the whole. Not the whole of the egoic identity (the imaginary) but the pure strain of presence that remains when unreality buckles at the knees. The world brightens to its sharpest boundaries just before releasing, the Now delivered in an unpeeled heap.
You are nowhere but here: this there is no escaping.
Kill the idea of the ideal, and you'll unyoke yourself from time, standing still in the waters of unmatched peace. So they say. I, too, have had my glimpses. These glimpses are widening; I am learning to acclimate myself to greater peace than I have known, deeper love. A question of comfort: we wander lifetimes with our faces tilted far from the sun, flinching from the light that bathes us, the love that laps at our feet.
A question of safety, too: Is this moment wide enough to hold me? Am I welcome between the walls of my own bones?
Instead of seeking my own nourishment—a dangerous task, I was told— I accepted the paltry handfuls that were offered me. Poisoned, although offered in love. And because I loved these humans back, I ate, feigning satisfaction with molding breads, rotting fruits.
Now, the bread of presence is offered and I flinch:
Can I trust this joy? Is this love really free?
Safety can be a dangerous thing.
Dangerous when won artificially. When ideologies paper correct beliefs over direct experience in order to tame the flow of an un-fixed, ever-changing self. The world is not so easy to understand. Beliefs offer artificial ease.
What if safety had nothing to do with understanding, with belief?
When Paul told his fellow Jews to "trust" in God, I don't believe he had anything in mind like the "faith" we hold in authoritarian religions. Not a suspension of intellect, a deference to authority, an abeyance of doubt. No— if religions refer to fundamental reality, then their truths should not function on the level of "belief." Faith and trust refer to this more primal move: surrender.
Surrender is the only spiritual practice, though it incarnates in many forms. Some forms are manipulations, surrendering the self to the authority of others. This is always a secular surrender, even when encouraged by a religious institution. Surrender to anything but the ground beneath your own two feet, and the ground fractures, swallowing you whole.
Abstract beliefs muffle the pure sound of your presencing, splitting the body from the mind and the ego from its source. Your true self (as opposed to the egoic structure) is an unmet being and a wide wondering, but you can wonder nothing and wander nowhere without being rooted to a particular plot. The one who robs you of this knowing uproots you from your only home. Disinherited from the land of your becoming, you wander through a profound disorientation. You are not able to place what's been robbed of you, because place itself has been taken.
Can I reclaim my choosing? Can I let no former choice go to waste? Perhaps. But "Can I surrender?" is another question entirely.
The purpose of life is to re-arrive at your own home after so many far journeys. To prop up your weary legs and let out a long-held sigh, sinking back into the bones that await your breath, the corpse that watches patiently for your attention to presence back. Long you have wandered through worlds of "otherwise." I understand: so have I. Are you ready to accept the only life you've been given?
This isn't a deferral of difficult decision-making. Sometimes, a life must be re-arranged— in humble or dramatic ways. But necessary change always proceeds from an original and continued acceptance of what remains unchanged. This is a subtle secret: change arises itself from the unchanging ground of active acceptance. Remain unattached to what is, and what will be unfolds naturally.
I cannot tell you whether Leibniz was right: is this the best possible version of your life? All I can tell you is that the answer to this question cannot be fabricated on the level of truth claims. We are already launched into a life—freely or not— and can only act as if this life is perfect by design.
My life is perfect: I have lived all week believing this, and effortlessly. Not "perfect" in an abstract way, because I have arrived at the right place or accumulated the right goods or relationships. But because I am here now, finally fitting in the only home I own, and because "perfect" is simply a word that gestures towards "whole," and "whole" is simply my natural state, beneath so many precariously built identities. Contentment carries me, alternative realities receding.
This week, I read Heidegger's The Question Concerning Technology. He suggests that we can develop a free relation to technology through the very recognition of our un-freedom. We cannot return to a pure state of unspoiled belief, identity, or possibility. We can only, as Dilthey wrote, "live through history," seeing the paths that have carved us here, that still carve us onwards.
In not aiming to escape (impossible) or react (implying I am still trapped), I can ensconce my freedom in the subtle space between here and otherwise. I will not look on as my life is re-lived infinitely, like a disembodied Nietzsche. I am already found in the thick of a life not entirely my own, but also not entirely pre-formed. In glimpsing my un-freedom, I already live awake to my limitations. This wakefulness is the heart of freedom.
Mormonism denies the robust possibility of "otherwise." Because there are no other viable paths to joy, obedience exacts no opportunity costs. Freedom is flaunted but unfounded in lived reality, as all alternative choices lead to misery. Now, my newfound freedom rears up and looks behind, seeing that each choice left wastelands of "otherwise" and "elsewhere" behind. Now, a lifetime of opportunity costs demand to be paid, but I plead ignorance of life's accumulating interest; I plead poverty of time.
Now that we're older, freer, what can be done with all this unlived life?
I keep living, awed by the gifts that have claimed me. Chosen or not, life floods me with unearned joy, drenches me in undeserved love. Possibility flights up when I glimpse my un-spent time: eyes wide open to limitations, freedom captures me. In that space between the possible and the real, I live and breathe and find my granted being.
I sense this answer is insufficient. Perhaps anything true I write must fall short of concrete advice. You carry your own choosing, and no one can stand in another's place. I can only sink deep into my own history, can only say after so many delays, YES: to all the lives I never lived and to the one great gathering of life that carves a path through me now.
Through this one-true-surrendering-yes, the future flows onward towards the best possible world (towards now, and now and now).
There is no ideal life. There is only the life that you have chosen freely.
Choose now, or forever defer your peace.