“You live and you die, the rest is bullshit.”
That’s my mother’s refrain. She says it to me on long nights, when my tears make her cry, when we lay together eating olives until there’s nothing left to be said or cried over. Alone, I never cry as a point of pride. But something about my mother’s voice on the telephone or the sight of her small body curled up on the couch opens a floodgate inside me. I can go there.
She calls it all bullshit: worries I will never find real love, that I’m not enough to be a doctor, are no more damning than physics problem sets in her eyes. I know it doesn’t sound comforting: Bullshit. bullshit. Just the syllables on your tongue feel hard and sharp, the letters cutting a jagged scar on the page. But my mother says bullshit lovingly. I know that for her I am so many incontrovertible truths: intelligent, generous, beautiful, genuine, dedicated. In the face of all that, life’s pestering obstacles and doubting, shouting voices are reduced to specks of dust on the floor; specks I try to sweep away, but only specks all the same.
That doesn’t mean I always like to hear her say bullshit. It can invalidate my conflicts, making me feel small and petty and stupid. Make me angry, make me lash out. Because as much as I don’t like to admit it, sometimes the bullshit feels huge and all-encompassing, the fabric of my life. When I think about my future, I think about bullshit.
Sometimes I worry the bullshit will be some soulless box in Nowhere, Indiana, a new-construction hell-hole where I live alone, surrounded only by strip-malls, football, and bored, listless people.
On my better days, the bull-shit is a cozy well-loved Victorian home in some mid-size city, with double-sinks in the bathroom and a majestic oak tree watching over my wife and I as we sleep. A home where we’ll name our son after FDR and our pugs after desserts.
But sometimes I fear the bullshit is me buckling under the pressure of medical school, losing my passion and drive, and stumbling from dead-end to dead-end. Paralyzed by doubt and certain inadequacy, I won’t even know what good bullshit looks like.
Sometimes the bullshit is me serving women and their families, laughing and working with a full-heart. I’d feel honored to share in the miracles of birth and family as their doctor, feeling fulfilled by crazy hours and late-night pages. I’d dive deep into life and work, letting them whisk me off to far-flung corners of the globe or to a surprising corner of my own backyard. Each opportunity would bring inspiration and understandings of people I had never known, lives I’d never lived.
In reality, I know that none of the bullshit, the bleak and distressing, or the idealized and bright will ever tell the whole story. But that doesn’t mean that the bullshit doesn’t matter. For my own sake, I have to believe, like my mother does, that certain incontrovertible, constant truths will rise above the bullshit. I have to believe:
That I’ll work-hard (most days).
That I’ll be generous with love and spirit.
That I’ll eat olives.
That I’ll try my best to take risks, standing up and standing out.
That I’ll laugh.
That I’ll treat others with admiration and respect.
In the end, I know a few things for certain: I’ll live, I’ll die, and when it’s all said and done I’ll say thank you for the bullshit. What more could you really ask for, anyway.