I’m confronted by a great deal of grand and worthy ambition from this student body. You want to be a politician, a social worker. You want to be an artist. Your body’s ambition: Mulch. Your body wants to make some babies and then go in the ground and fertilize things. That’s it. And that seems like a bit of a contradiction. It doesn’t seem fair. For one thing, we’re telling you, “Go out into the world!” exactly when your body is saying, “Hey, let’s bring it down a notch. Let’s take it down.”
– Joss Whedon, 2013 commencement address to Wesleyan
I adored Joss Whedon’s commencement address, especially the way that he framed it by death. Right now, this year, and perhaps every year since I had a child and got cancer, I’ve been feeling that my body frames my ambition.
Two weeks ago my mom sent over some boxes that she’d carefully kept from my teen years. I opened them up and it felt like giving me the gift of myself, or of a forgotten self. I saw a person full of energy and curiosity. It’s been nice to remember, nice to look at the photographs of a girl in the middle of a welter of new experiences and see who she was. Even my old fantasy novels felt comfortable to my hand, it felt like home to pick them up and see all the worlds I lived inside of books, as much a part of my childhood as actually living.
It was strange to think about all the changes that have happened to me since.
Having a child was an enormous change to my body. It made me realize that bodies have a lot more in common with compost heaps than with angels. Having cancer compounded this. After a reasonably invulnerable time in my 20s and 30s, cancer made me realize how much energy humans have to spend making sure their bodies are working right. It’s a little ridiculous to think about the sheer amount of self-absorption that this forces me to have (thank god insurance finally proved useful), but it’s also a good reality check. In this moment between my 30s and the rest of my life, it’s good to know that I’m already broken in to the inevitable.
Turning 40 feels like a fresh start, but one touched by the knowledge that Joss shares. I’m realizing that ambitions are something that might not ever be achieved, that accomplishment is often delayed until it becomes impossible, that the body in middle age cannot handle the dreams of the young. What’s left? A good fucking sense of humor.
So once you get here, halfway through (if you’re lucky), facing age — what then? For most of my 20s I did not pick up the strands of family and place woven around me. I took it all very lightly, and moved lightly through the world. At age 40, these bonds seem as necessary as they once were unnecessary.
But Joss’s words helped me think through a lot of this, a lot of the feelings of being constrained by the body, by reality, by: “The contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself. I believe these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have.”
I’ve lived a huge contradiction, and I am the result of it. I don’t have the luxury of having chosen a clean path, and I’ve wasted a fair bit of time doing shit-all (it was fun!), but in the process perhaps I picked up the bits of a dream-rich but people-starved childhood and wove in love and friendships, and healed myself a great deal. Have I actually achieved anything? Who knows.
Maybe that was all necessary too, part of becoming this person with cancer, with a child, with a family, with a job, with a garden.
Or perhaps, as Joss says, nobody is ever meant to find peace, but will always be struggling with the ache inside of themselves as they come to terms with everything that “I” means, or as Joss says:
This contradiction, and this tension … it never goes away. And if you think that achieving something, if you think that solving something, if you think a career or a relationship will quiet that voice, it will not. If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better.