Want to lead your biggest life? Here’s what you must do.

On June 21, 2022 I drove to New York for a family visit. While I was excited to see my relatives, the real treat will happen on the way.

That afternoon I planned to meet with a friend I haven’t seen in thirty-eight years.

This boy, well, now this man, was a friend my brothers and I shared during a period when we called ourselves The Three Musketeers. The last time we hung out, he and my brothers were eight, I was ten. We built forts, searched for railroad spikes along the train tracks, and jumped off the roof of our carport during games of housetop freeze tag. I can still hear the Mississippi twang in the “Superman” (which sounded like SoopAH MAYHAN) he used to yell before each jump.

I’m certain the swirl of excited-terrified-wonder fueling our meeting will one day lead to an essay or two on memory and reunion.

But as I prepared to leave, I was a bundle of questions.

What is he like now?

Will we have anything in common?

What if our conversation stalls?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience ,and Healing by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry. This excellent and accessible book explains how tough experiences rewire our nervous systems and impact our behavior. Reading it has taught me so much about myself.

One of the most eye-opening segments was on belonging. Here’s what Dr. Perry had to say:

“Our major finding is that your history of relational health—your connectedness to family, community, and culture—is more predictive of your mental health than your history of adversity (see Figure 8). This is similar to the findings of other researchers looking at the power of positive relationships on health. Connectedness has the power to counterbalance adversity.”

Dr. Perry says a lack of belonging is registered as trauma inside the body. Disconnection, isolation, and loneliness are some of the reasons why neglect, bullying, and feeling ostracized have such lasting impacts on us.

At the time of our great childhood adventures, my friend, brothers, and I were one tight-knit group. We belonged to each other but not much else. Maybe that’s why this relationship has always felt so special.

Our lives are defined by the stories we tell ourselves, and I have so many of this young friend. Yet as I prepared for my departure, the fearful part of me wondered if I should cancel our visit, thereby protecting those old stories, rather than risking the discovery that our connection was over.

But then I remembered the advice poet Frank Bidart once gave to my undergraduate poetry class: Make time for art, then go live your life.

He said that life informed art, not the other way around. So, if you want to have big stories, live a bigger life.

That means confronting your fears, opening yourself to potential joy, and being present with whatever happens.

So, I drove, and I kept my heart open to the potential new chapter of belonging our lives might write. It’s how I choose to lead a big, beautiful life, which is my most precious creation.

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