Ashley Zhang: The power of anonymous confessions

Thursday, October 6, 2016 - 6:15pm

I’d never quite understood Jordan Baker’s love of large parties and their supposed intimacy in “The Great Gatsby” until one night, as I rushed down State Street, heart pounding, blood pumping, late for something or other, I paused at the sight of a new addition to the landscape. Tall blackboard walls stood at the corner of State and William, and the big, bold letters scrawled across the top — “Before I die, I want to …” — beckoned to me. 

“Before I die, I want to …” It was a big question to pose in public, and perhaps it was the gravity of it that made me stop, quieting my worries even in my frantic state. What did I want to accomplish before my time came? I’d never really given much thought to anything beyond the immediate future — what was for dinner tonight, my orgo exam next week, Thanksgiving next month — but when confronted with the reality of mortality, it seemed silly to worry about such trivial matters. At death’s door, I won’t be thinking of missed meetings or chemistry grades. In the big scheme of things, the matters that seem wildly important today are mere trivialities.

For a few weeks, these blackboard walls forced passing pedestrians to consider what really matters when all the banalities and fluff are pulled away, resulting in a myriad of answers in different colors and handwritings. While responses varied from the humorous “I want to steal all the fries in the world” and “learn to spel” to the meta “fill up an ‘I want to’ board,” the majority of answers were stunningly honest and deeply personal. “I want to regain optimism.” “I want to be the reason someone lives.” “I want to love my body.”

Just as large parties are oddly intimate, public confessionals are oddly private.

We all secretly yearn for our stories to be heard, but fear of judgment and gossip hold us back from sharing them with friends and family, leaving us to seek alternative platforms: an anonymous forum, the back of a bathroom door or a tall blackboard for all to see. It’s a shout into the proverbial void, a bottled message thrown to the sea. With just enough anonymity, the words left behind for curious eyes carry sweet relief as we bare our souls to the world. Even this column — which is undeniably public — is a home for my private thoughts, because typing them isn’t nearly as intimidating as voicing them.

“In all the to-dos that crowd our lists, what is most important to do before we die?” Darcy Crain-Polly, associate minister for the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor, which housed the “Before I die …” boards, asks. The boards, which are the brainchild of retired palliative physician Dr. Sheryl Kurze and Arbor Hospice Chaplain Diane Smith, have made a positive effect in the community that’s made its year-long conception well worth it.

Inspired by Candy Chang, the New Orleans artist who created the “Before I die...” wall concept, Dr. Kurze and Rev. Smith began working on a wall for Ann Arbor, to give everyone an opportunity to “gain clarity about how they want to spend their lives.” Dr. Kurze and Rev. Smith work closely with individuals nearing the ends of their lives, and are “continually reminded that life is precarious.” In their work, they often encourage people and patients to “spend the time they have left living as fully as possible for as long as possible.”

On the dark street corner milling with pedestrians, facing this board that demanded my deepest desires, clarity struck. As I reached for a piece of chalk, my gaze fell upon the truths of others. “Before I die I want to be my true self.” “I want to be a man.” “I want to tell my brother I’m sorry.” The raw honesty and vulnerability behind these responses encouraged me to bring chalk to the board and confess not one, not two, but three matters of the heart.

Number 1: “Before I die, I want to save a life.” That’s for the future physician in me.

Number 2: “Before I die, I want to write a book.” That’s for the budding writer in me.

And, Number 3: “Before I die, I want to learn to love myself.” That’s for all of me, encapsulated in the skin of insecurities I wear.

Stepping back from the blackboard walls, I let out a sigh of relief as my confessions melted into anonymity, joining the truths of so many others. Despite the anonymity, they were there and they were mine, at least for the night. That night, those were the things I wanted most before I died. And perhaps I won’t fulfill some — hell, perhaps I won’t fulfill any at all — but at that moment, I allowed all the background noise to fade into oblivion until only the stark truth was left.

For Dr. Kurze and Rev. Smith, that effect would be considered a success. In an interview with the Daily, Rev. Smith stated, “I’d like to think that the ‘Before I die...’ wall prompts people to dream dreams, to imagine what’s possible, to play and have fun on the way to whatever comes next.” The responses on the board surely reflect that, even inspiring some people to change the hopeful “I want” to the determined “I will.” “I will finish med school.” “I will change the world.”

The blackboard walls outside the First Congregational Church may be long gone, but their impact and inspiration doesn’t have to be. So, next time all the minor worries of life begin to pile up, think: Before you die, what do you want to do?

Ashley Zhang can be reached at ashleyzh@umich.edu.

Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed the quote, "I'd like to think that the 'Before I die...' wall prompts people to dream dreams, to imagine what's possible, to play and have fun on the way to whatever comes next." This statement was made by Rev. Diane Smith, not Dr. Sheryl Kurze.