The Greatest Lesson I Never Learned


I had many teachers, great and wise. Book by book, lesson by lesson, they taught me all I thought I needed to know. How to judge, what to understand, why to strive. Who to be, how to get, what to want.

I studied diligently, and grew. The lessons of my teachers saw me safely through storm and fury, heartbreak and triumph. I stood tall, strong, proud. A boy had become a man.

And yet. The more I knew, the less I understood. The more I had, the less I was. The more I won, the less I felt. And I did not know why.

The boy had become the man. But what was the meaning of the journey? What does it mean…to be here, alive, for a brief moment, underneath the endless stars?

Somehow, my teachers had failed to teach me the greatest lesson of all.

Who, then, could teach me? I didn’t know who to ask. And I didn’t know how.

But my teachers had taught me well. And so I battled with the problem. Perhaps, I reasoned, if I could start with the meaning of just a single day, it might point the way. To the meaning of a life. Who would I ask? Everyone. And the true, I told myself, would cunningly reveal the false.

And so I began to ask.

I asked a dying man. He told me every day was a beginning.

I asked a child. He told me every day was all there was.

I asked a gardener. He told me every day was a season.

I asked a carpenter. She told me every day was a story.

I asked a king. He told me every day was an obligation.

I asked a poor man. He told me every day was a gift.

I asked a soldier. He told me every day was a song.

I asked a sailor. She told me every day was impossibility.

I asked a rich man. He told me every day was an opportunity.

I asked a scientist. She told me every day was a miracle.

I asked a prisoner. He told me every day was a rebellion.

I asked a defeated man. He told me every day was a dream.

I asked a prophet. He told me every day was all days.

I asked them all. And one long night, at last, I admitted bitter defeat. It didn’t make sense. Who was right? Who was wrong? Surely some of the people I had asked had to be wrong for any to be right. And if some were right, and some were wrong, who could say for sure?

My method had not worked. My teachers had not taught me well enough. I had not been able to untangle even a seed of purpose in life’s jungle of futility.

I thought about my own days. My best ones; and my worst ones. The ones that made my heart sing and my blood roar. And the ones I pulled the covers over my head, shut my eyes tight, and couldn’t face the morning. The ones I fell in love, and those I grieved; those I triumphed and those I fell; those where I laughed bitterly, and those where I longed sweetly.

And then I knew.

I had asked many people. I had thought that many of them had to be wrong; and I would discover the One Perfect Answer. To why I was here.

But it was not they who had been wrong. I had been wrong.

Each and every person I had asked had been right. Every day contained what each of them had said. Every day is a blessing, a gift, an impossibility, an obligation, a miracle, a discovery, a rebellion, a struggle, a song, a story. It is all those. And more. It is only when we find all those in each and every day that we can truly be said to live.

Every day is a multitude. A contradiction, a paradox, a manyness. Not a page, but the pen. Not a river, but a sea. Just as every life is. That is why making sense of a life so challenging, demanding, rewarding. That is why life can seem senseless, hopeless, meaningless, futile.

And yet. In that multitude is something greater and mightier than meaning. Possibility. Without possibility, there is no meaning. It isn’t the universe that gives us meaning. It is we who give life meaning. Day by day, struggle by struggle, song by song, rebellion by rebellion, impossibility by impossibility, story by story. That is what makes us not just who we are, but something greater, nobler, truer: what we may become.

I learned the greatest lesson too late, I thought bitterly. All the time I had wasted!

I looked up.

The sun was rising.

What had the prophet said?

Every day is all days.

And if every day was all days, then I would finally have the courage to let this day reveal everything it was meant to hold. So I could become all that I was meant to be.

Perhaps that is all we need—for that is all we have. Perhaps meaning asks nothing else of us—for possibility demands nothing less of us. To stand naked, shoulder to shoulder, with all the people we may become. And each morning, with them, dive into the endless sea. For that is how we find our way home. With love, through freedom, into truth.

I had many teachers, great and wise. And each taught me a line. Of the greatest lesson of all.

This post originally appeared at Medium.