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How do you buy back your life? What does it cost? Time? Effort? Treasure? After making so many mistakes, and after not standing up to the wrongs done against you, how do you make your life sound again, make yourself whole again, imagine a future of worth and accomplishment?

There is a mental game I have often played with myself. In times when I had a lot of work to do, too many chores ahead of me, more perhaps than I felt I could manage, I have imagined myself a prisoner, a convict who is being made to do this work in expiation for heinous crimes. It is work I must do to gain my freedom, to pay for my crimes. What crimes? I don’t know, it’s never thought out that deeply. I don’t imagine that I have stolen money or injured someone or done anything specific. Just the same it makes me feel better as I go about one unending task after another.

I also know this: we all have done things we regret. One of the few tenets of Christian dogma that I agree with is that we are all sinners, and I don’t care how you define the word, whether sin to you is the obvious, like betraying someone you love, or the oddly arcane, like dancing to rock n roll music. Nobody is perfect, and I think the nature of virtue is such that a virtuous person is not someone who never does anything wrong—that person does not exist—but the person who realizes they have done wrong and does something about it.

We do not get imprisoned for our moral indiscretions, our casual betrayals, our personal failings. They are things we must expiate ourselves, reconcile with those affected, and gain a sense of having done the right thing. How do we do this?

After lengthy legal proceedings, I am now a single person again. I owe much money. I have a somewhat uncertain future. Am I happier? I hope this does not sound too glibly philosophical, but I believe that ‘happiness’ is an artificial construct, and one of fairly recent vintage in our culture. (For more on the subject, read Happiness: A History, by Darrin McMahon.) There are things that please me on a day-to-day basis, fulfill certain needs, satisfy specific urges, but happy? It’s so hard to tell.

Am I working toward a goal of expiating for sins? Have I done wrong? Of course, every day, in large things and small, I have done wrong, and continue to do so. But I feel like my life is much more my own now, and I have the latitude and the time to get back part of who I was in a better time. Sometimes our mistakes are not about doing wrong to others, but allowing wrong to be done to ourselves.

Autumn is coming on. As I sit writing this in my little flophouse apartment, I am watching leaves cascade off the large tree outside my window. A friend told me yesterday that this is not the autumn, that it’s the effects of a drought-stricken summer. But the day is cool, and I feel autumn in the air: I am entering the seventh season since the life I had known for over twenty years fell apart and left me to think about what sort of a future is in store.

Autumn is the season of reminiscence, of watching earth surrender its beauty to a time of contemplation, stripping away its ephemeral and showy trappings to leave you standing alone thinking. We fight it: we fill autumn with more activities than any other season, and yet the time will come when we must take stock. The tree outside my window will soon be bare.

How do you buy back your life? What does it cost?