Life as a sum total

I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.      — Joseph Campbell

I had a revelation the other day; one of those moments of clarity when something about life just falls into place. I discovered what’s important to me in terms of determining value: experiences.

Many clients come to me at a time while dividing their assets, and it’s surprising what they value. When I worked doing restraining orders in the next county over, I routinely could get men accused of abuse to waive visitation with their children as long as they didn’t have to turn in their guns to the sheriff. I’ve heard of cases where women gave up custody of their children for a car. Some litigants want to keep the family home; others want to keep the six-figure retirement account. Some just want the dog.

While many people are worried about the accumulation of money, driving the bigger car, buying up real estate, those things aren’t important in our lives. We have a modest house, and we need our two cars, because we work in different cities with very little access to public transportation. But none of these are flashy in the least, or foreign, or new–or even red.

What we do have are experiences. We’ve been to Disney multiple times, to Niagara Falls, to Mammoth and Wind Caves, to museums and parks and zoos, local and cross-country. I took two girls to New Orleans for Mardi Gras several years before Katrina; we stayed with old friends of mine in the Garden District and had a wonderful time. (Even when the cop pulled up and offered my high-school age daughter edible underwear. Don’t ask me.) We’ve petted sharks, we’ve shaken presidential candidates’ hands, we’ve seen the world’s biggest thermometer. We watched our cat birth her kittens on my great-grandmother’s hand-pieced quilt. We’ve marveled at the magic of fireflies caught in jars. We’ve eaten and cooked in every ethnic cuisine I can think of, with exotic ingredients of all flavors.

I’ve written here before about our other wild experiences, like the trip cross-country for the book tour that wasn’t, or the shootout in the fruit grove. Each of these, as with so many others, always brings the comment,  “Do you remember when-?” and then a reconnection to times past, and sometimes people past as well. Valuing experiences allows me to also value what I’ve chosen to leave behind, including two ex-husbands, jobs I once loved, placed I’ve lived. I can treasure moments that were good about them, without having to draw in the whole relationship.

But it doesn’t have to be anything earth-shattering. We remember the indoor water gun fight between five or six teenagers and myself that ended with me hiding in the tub behind the shower curtain trying to avoid being drowned. Whether we’re sitting around a campfire in the woods, stretching our legs with a fast and furious Frisbee game during a road trip, or sharing a cup of hot chocolate and telling endless knock-knock jokes, we build bonds that help draw us together and give us something to remember.

The same value system transfers to those we meet. I don’t care what brand name of clothing people wear (though I must admit, $300,000 for an outfit seems like something out of a crazy fantasy world), what neighborhood they live in, whether they’re a waitress or a doctor. If someone has been somewhere I haven’t been, or done something I’ve never done, and can make their experience come alive by sharing the story, they’re someone special in my eyes. Sometimes an experience is evidenced simply by a warm shared gaze between a couple, or a parent and child; the bond reveals itself. Through a very poignant kind of mathematics, that experience adds to the rest that make that person what he or she is.

Though it’s harder to find new ones as I get older, I’ll keep accumulating events and experiences until the last day, and if my belief holds true, I’ll have more chances to gather experiences even past that. But Campbell addresses this as well:

“Eternity has nothing to do with the hereafter… This is it… If you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere. The experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life. Heaven is not the place to have the experience; here’s the place to have the experience.

What’s holding you back? Experiences are waiting. Go find them–and pass them on.


7 thoughts on “Life as a sum total

  1. Yeah, I guess you could kinda say I’m into that experiences thing too. HAHAHAHA

    PS- Totally worth mentioning- that damn Barney cake, burning the christmas trees in the back yard, all of the many trips to Mrs. Templeton’s office, and M lighting incense in bio class.

    And K, if you even post a comment, I’m going to throw a pencil at you!


  2. Crap. I screwed up while commenting because hy hubby’s info was pre-filled and I hit enter before comment completion.

    Sorry…as I was saying, that post was wonderful. Well written, meaningful, and a delight to read. I love the sentiment and at a time in my life where I am trying to focus on ‘seizing the day’ it was a nice boost to that mind set.

  3. Love this well-written post. It is all so true. I think some people just live for the experience while others live for the stuff. At the end of “Ever After” the Narrator says something like, “They lived happily ever after, but the point is that they LIVED.” I never really knew if that meant they were “real” or if they grabbed life and LIVED it. I prefer to believe it meant the latter. That is what life is about. But I hope you don’t have many more shootouts in orange groves!

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