Thirteen Things I Learned in 2013 (Part 1)

It’s hard to believe this year was, in fact, no longer than last year–it just felt that way. The journey I’ve taken from January 1, 2013, to today has been among the most adventurous I’ve ever had–blessed with confusion and clarity, strewn across two continents, and featuring my life-long highest and lowest points, it’s certainly been anything but expected.

And yet I’ve survived and stand here today a changed man. I’ve learned a lot along the way–a lot more than algebra and analysis, conservation and creative writing, policies and politics–things that fill me with more wisdom than Zelda with her Triforce piece (I’ve been playing again lately), and as my last act of 2013, I want to share these lessons with you.

1. If you’re not thankful to be alive, everything means nothing.

The year began in turmoil. It was, I suppose, like the birth of the universe: A writhing mess of chaos and conflicting forces, and once placed under sufficient stress, it all shattered. Largely unaware of my own undoing, I began making dangerous decisions–and when I made it through (mostly) unscathed, I realized there is no greater feeling than being thankful to be alive. In that one moment–seeing the verdant leaves upon the trees, the undistilled sunlight through the skies, the red bricks beneath my feet–and feeling each second another unadulterated breath filling my lungs, I was thankful to be alive.

Everything else seemed suddenly transitory: Life itself could be gone in an instant, so why was I wasting it on things that didn’t matter, on dreams that weren’t mine?

2. You’ll never be more thankful to be alive than when you’ve faced death.

I was stupid. I put myself in a potentially life-threatening situation, and that I was able to make it through means nothing if not for the few people who helped me through it. In the weeks and months that followed, I felt as dead as I could have been: My heart had darkened, shut down, and ejected itself from inside me. As I slowly recovered, reawakening in time with the spring as if the world itself responded to my own evolution, I realized I never would have been even half as thankful for all the things I had if I hadn’t glimpsed a moment without any of them.

I’m not saying do something stupid, and I’m not saying to risk your life for the sake of seeming thankful, but I am saying you won’t know how sincerely you love being alive until you’ve stared death in the eye and watched the specter fade away.

3. Thinking is an action, and it is the only action that has ever changed the world.

I wanted something tangible. I told my counselor I had to do something concrete, take action–I couldn’t stand sitting still. I was impatient. I didn’t want to live in the dark anymore. The best he could offer was a few things to think about, a few perspectives I hadn’t seen on my own. So I did what he said: I considered them, I repeated them daily, I directed my thoughts from the darkness to the light. And somewhere in that mess of emotion, what I was feeling, what I was believing, began to change. That was the moment I realized passive thought might be inaction, but thinking is action.

True thinking takes intent. It doesn’t happen just because your mind is working; it happens because you take charge of your thoughts and decide what to think about and how to think about it. When we consider new ideas, our minds expand; when our minds expand, the world changes–how we see it, how we react to it, how we affect it.

I always knew the best way I could have a positive impact on the LGBT community was to share my stories with others–to openly respond to even the most asinine questions to help people understand. I thought I was touching hearts and changing minds–but that’s not all I was doing. By helping others to think, I helped them to take action–changing themselves, yes, but also changing the world around them, the world that we share.

There is nothing more powerful than thought, no action greater than thinking.

4. Things don’t matter.

In the midst of my recovery I found myself flying south to Belize for my service trip over spring break. For nearly ten days I lived a life that wasn’t mine: I slept in a bed one size too small beneath an open window that left me cold and damp each night; I ate rice and beans or chicken soup almost every day (for all three meals); and from dawn to dusk I was out working, swinging hammers, wielding saws, and building things with my own hands.

I didn’t have internet. I didn’t have a cellphone. I didn’t have anything more than a camera, a pen and pad, and sometimes–but only sometimes–something to read. And people. I was always with people I cared about. And it was amazing.

Somewhere between sweating off three pounds in a single afternoon and depositing my used toilet paper in a bin beside the bucket since it couldn’t be flushed, I realized things don’t matter: the material is only material. It’ll rot, get lost, be forgotten–so why should we subscribe willingly to its rule?

I’ve added no significant material possessions to my life this year. Most of what I’ve acquired has been in the form of clothing (which helps me express myself and fill the roles I need to fill), CDs, books, and video games (each of which gives me an experience–the physical object itself means nothing), and an assortment of crafts (the byproduct of experiences) and shot glasses (a new collection I’ve started–each from significant places I’ve visited this year). Yet as if it isn’t clear already, each of these objects only have meaning because of what they signify–the object itself is meaningless.

For a long time I’ve despised this time of year for the fact everything is so blatantly material, but this is the first year I’ve truly hated it: Such obsessive yearning and grasping for plastic and material wealth makes me sick. I can honestly admit I’ve lost all material wants: In fact, as I write this, my entire room is in boxes, and I’m no less happy because of it. These objects are only objects. These things are only things. They mean nothing.

Jump to Part 2

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