Editor’s note: This blog is part of a series of first person essays about identity written by UTEP honors students during the spring 2013 semester.
EL PASO – “He just died.” That’s how I heard that my older brother was dead.
He had developed pancreatic Cancer at 31 years old, and had been deteriorating ever since. The doctors had told us that everyone who lived two years after diagnosis never had a reoccurrence for the rest of their lives. That was encouraging news, until we found out that the survival rate is four percent. He was 33 at the time of his death. He’d almost made it.
At the time that my older brother passed away I was in the midst of finals in my graphic design program in Seattle. His death, though somewhat expected, was still a tragedy for all of us who were involved in his care from the beginning. We had all come together over this illness to support him, each other, and ourselves. Now that he was gone, the close-knit community that had developed over the last two years had melted back into daily life. That other life that somehow continues on despite the fact that your own might be collapsing around you.
It’s times like these that you’re faced with three choices: carry on as though nothing has happened, let it bury you under the weight of guilt, anger, resentment, and sorrow that you feel, or you can let it renew your desire to live a life that is stripped of that which does not matter – a life that can hold meaning in every action and thought. A designed life. As my life hung in the balance between apathy and action, there was a realization that I was still around. A realization that is, at its heart, one of the simplest ideas in humankind, and one of the most profound.
As a child of missionary parents, I’ve grown up in many different places – experiencing cultures and environments that have led me to an understanding that we are products of how we react to things, not how things act upon us. In Abidjan I played in the dirt and swam in lagoons. In Paris I practiced my cursive and developed a love of new food. In California I learned to skate and play handball. In New Mexico I fell in love with Hip Hop and the desert. In Seattle I learned to mountain climb and skydive. All of these different elements define who I am, and I took an active role in designing them.
This experience was an opportunity to create a new reality within myself. A new way of seeing the world that would allow me to forgive more easily, listen more carefully, spend more time, and get things done. My brother’s death was a chance for me to reconnect with that quiet urgency that wells up within you when you travel or step out of your comfort zone. It was an opportunity to start the design process over again, but designing one’s life is not as easy or as natural as it may seem.
Tragedy is a powerful motivator for many to begin the process of designing their own lives, but it is not a necessary, nor a desired one. The simplest act that we can perform is to decide to do something, but the myriad pieces needed to accomplish that goal begin to stretch out before us into infinity.
I feel empowered by my ability to make things happen by consciously working toward a goal. Sometimes it is just as important to resist a change in order to keep an important design element, as it is to accept a change in order to replace or insert another. From the beginning to the end, all of our lives are designed. The question is: are you the designer, or has your life been designed for you?