My 20th high school reunion is coming up next week.
How did THAT happen? More importantly: Should I go?
It’s in Nebraska, so I’d have to book a flight (with connections), rent a car, haul my kid across time zones, and find something decent to wear. Not to mention all that torturous small talk once I actually get there. As an introvert, trying to catch up on two decades of relative strangers’ lives over cocktail weenies and cheap wine is perhaps my worst nightmare.
There are a million reasons to just blow it off, not the least of which being that reunions in a post-Facebook world yield fewer surprises than they did before. Most of us are familiar with some version of one another’s lives, even if it’s a glossily curated edition.
But there’s a reason Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion became a cult hit. It articulated something most of us don’t say out loud: it can be so damn hard to go back.
Social media or not, reunions are charged with existential angst. They leave you acutely aware of the passage of time: the fact that you’re now decidedly middle-aged, sporting gray at your temples, hefting around an extra 15 pounds; and the undeniable truth that somehow, you got kind of old.
That high school promise of what could be has been replaced by the often-ambivalent reality of what is, and death feels so much closer than it did in back when Friends and The Spice Girls reigned supreme.
The movie Grosse Point Blank says it best:
Marcella: You know, when you start getting invited to your 10 year high school reunion, time is catching up.
Martin Q. Blank: Are you talking about a sense of my own mortality or a fear of death?
Marcella: Well, I never really thought about it quite like that.
Martin Q. Blank: Did you go to yours?
Marcella: Yes, I did. It was just as if everyone had swelled.
It’s complicated. So you flirt with the prospect of throwing on a pair of Spanx, buying a new handbag, touching up your roots, and praying for no awkward middle-aged acne to show up, all the while wondering what happened to your sprightly hopeful young self, and feeling insecure about your achievement or lack thereof.
It’s all too much. So then you figure: screw it. I’ll just stay home and avoid the whole awkward thing.
But you should go. Because life is short. We’re lucky to be around at 38. And who knows if we’ll make it to our 30th high school reunion?
Lewis Richmond, a Buddhist teacher and author of Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser, uses Zen philosophy to express our inherent connection in a different way.
In a 2010 conversation with Tricycle’s feature editor Andrew Cooper, Richmond said:
Sometimes when I’m asked to describe the Buddhist teachings, I say this: Everything is connected; nothing lasts; you are not alone. This is really just a restatement of the traditional three marks of existence: non-self, impermanence, and suffering. I don’t think I would have expressed the truth of suffering as “you are not alone” before my illnesses, but now I find that talking about it that way gets at something important. The fact that we all suffer means we are all in the same boat, and that’s what allows us to feel compassion.
When sickness and death touch your life—as they inevitably will—they’re an electrical shock waking you up to the fact that you don’t get to keep this body forever. You don’t have time to get an MBA or train for that Ironman before you give yourself permission to be authentic and at ease in your body and your relationships. You begin to realize that tomorrow might be too late.
And those people with whom you shared your teenage years? They’re precious in a way no one else might be.
Sure, maybe they voted for He Who Shall Not Be Named, and maybe you haven’t spoken since the Seinfeld finale. But you sat on the Johnson Gym bleachers and cheered for a goofy chainlink mascot together (Go Links!), and you toilet-papered each other’s houses at 3 a.m., and you “jazz-handed” and grapevined onstage in bad sequined show choir outfits, and you learned to drive beater stick-shifts, and shivered through prairie blizzard football games, and pinned ugly prom corsages on one another. Your lives are forever intertwined.
The moments you shared didn’t last. They might even be hardly recognizable now. But because of them, you’re a part of something greater.
And when you arrive at the reunion, you’re going walk into that room full of vaguely familiar strangers who look more like their middle-aged parents than the 17-year-olds in your memories, and your classmates will all be trying their damnedest to look put-together and successful and suave, like they haven’t changed a bit, but every person in the room:
- Has had their heart broken by death or loss
- Has aged
- Feels older and creakier than they did in high school
- Wonders if they made all the right choices
- Wonders if their life is meaningful
- Wants to love and be loved
- Will die someday
Ideally, we’re coming together not to boast about our McMansions and Teslas (or our student loans and rundown studio apartments). If we’re brave enough, we can cut the bullshit, and drop the facade that everything’s peachy. Compassionate connection comes from letting ourselves be fully vulnerable about our own moments of suffering.
So I challenge you: walk into that hazy room, stick a nametag on, and talk to someone you haven’t seen in ages. And ask them something more meaningful than what they do for work.
In his tremendously popular column for On Being, “The Disease of Being Busy,” Omid Safi writes,
In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal?
What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know.
I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, nor asking how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment. Tell me. Tell me your heart is joyous, tell me your heart is aching, tell me your heart is sad, tell me your heart craves a human touch. Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul.
We may see one another for just an hour or two at a heartland dive bar, and then not again for decades, or maybe even ever. So let’s not waste this opportunity talking about the weather. I want to hear about your nephew’s battle with cancer, and how you’re managing it with such grace and strength. I want to find out how your parents have aged, or what it was like to lose them; what it means to be the primary caregiver for your grandfather with dementia, or what it feels like to be in your body in your life right now.
If we can empathize, if we’re willing to bring our whole brokenhearted selves to the table, rather than pretending we’ve spent the last 20 years living perfect shiny Pinterest lives, a reunion has the potential to be enormously meaningful.
Let Lewis Richmond’s summation of the three marks of existence help you come home with a heart full of compassion, and remember that:
1. Everything is connected
You have a shared history with these folks that transcends matching letter jackets. You grew one another up. And because our lives are built on relationality, that will never change.
2. Nothing lasts
Not youth. Not beauty. Not relationships. Not childhood homes. Not heartache. Not jobs. It all passes. And sometimes (oftentimes, when we’re attached to them) that passing means suffering. This attachment creates dukkha (often translated as pain, restlessness, or a lingering sense of dissatisfaction).
You’ve changed. I’ve changed. We’ve all changed. Our parents have died, we’ve married, divorced, given birth, raised children. None of us is the same.
If you walk into the room expecting that the beefcake conservative Christian high school quarterback you haven’t seen since graduation may very well be a balding liberal atheist insurance salesman, you will be less shocked.
Trust that you will all be different. Embrace the change. Impermanence is the nature of being. Learn to see the beauty in what the Japanese call wabi-sabi: all that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
3. You are not alone
We come together knowing we, too, will not last; that someday we’ll all die, and that proximity to death makes all the trivial stuff just fade away.
Death comes without warning. But you are also not alone in your suffering; we are all due to get sick, age, and die.
I’ve decided that I’m not going to dye my hair or drop 10 pounds for this thing. I’m proud of my grays, proud of my scars, proud of the quiet battles I’ve fought (and won and lost) in these last two decades. They haven’t been easy years, all of them, but some of them have been all grace and mostly joy.
So, please: go to the reunion. Buy the ticket, wear something that makes you feel beautiful and real and at ease in your still-trucking-along body, and then step through that door with gratitude for the fact that you’re living and breathing, you’re thriving amidst inevitable human suffering, and you’re doing the best you can, remembering that everything is connected; nothing lasts; and you are not alone.