A SUNDAY GATHERING MESSAGE BY ANDY PAKULA
By Billy Collins
It is possible to be struck by a
meteor or a single-engine plane while
reading in a chair at home. Pedestrians
are flattened by safes falling from
rooftops mostly within the panels of
the comics, but still, we know it is
possible, as well as the flash of
summer lightning, the thermos toppling
over, spilling out on the grass.
And we know the message can be
delivered from within. The heart, no
valentine, decides to quit after
lunch, the power shut off like a
switch, or a tiny dark ship is
unmoored into the flow of the body's
rivers, the brain a monastery,
defenseless on the shore.
This is what I think about when I shovel
compost into a wheelbarrow, and when
I fill the long flower boxes, then
press into rows the limp roots of red
impatiens -- the instant hand of Death
always ready to burst forth from the
sleeve of his voluminous cloak.
Then the soil is full of marvels, bits of
leaf like flakes off a fresco,
red-brown pine needles, a beetle quick
to burrow back under the loam. Then
the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue, the
clouds a brighter white, and all I
hear is the rasp of the steel edge
against a round stone, the small
plants singing with lifted faces, and
the click of the sundial as one hour
sweeps into the next.
By Ralph Waldo Emerson
To laugh often and love much;
To win the respect of intelligent persons
And the affection of children;
To earn the approbation of honest critics
And to endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To give of one's self;
To leave the world a little better,
Whether by a healthy child,
A garden patch
Or a redeemed social condition;
To have played and laughed with enthusiasm
And sung with exultation;
To know that even one life has breathed easier
Because you have lived -
This is to have succeeded.
When our lives begin, we have no sense that they will ever end.
As a child, time has a different meaning to us. It seems completely unlimited. Our supply of time seems infinite. Time can pass so slowly sometimes, too. A moment waiting for an ice cream cone can seem like an hour. Ten minutes shopping with your mother can seem like an eternity.
As we get a bit older, we start to recognise that the passage of time is not all positive. It no longer just means we’ll be taller, stronger, more capable, and allowed to do more things.
At some point - may in our late 20s or early 30s, we start to notice that time has already passed - what seems like a lot of it in fact. And many of us wake up with a start - maybe a bit of panic. We look around and accuse ourselves of failure, asking “what have I accomplished? what are my goals? how will I get there?” And we may start to feel like we should already be where the most successful person our age has got to.
Of course, this is not reassuring to the fragile ego:
By the time he was 30, Michelangelo had already created his famous sculptures the David and the Pieta and painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
By the time she was 30, Elizabeth Taylor was already the then highest paid actress in history.
By the time he was 30, Mark Zuckerberg was already a billionaire many times over thanks to FaceBook.
As we get older still, we start to recognise that life really will end and that it is, in fact, probably at least half over.
We start to become more aware of mortality if we've been lucky enough to avoid the loss of loved ones until then. Bill Collins reminds us “It is possible to be struck by a meteor or a single-engine plane while reading in a chair at home.” And there is the flash of summer lightning or the safe tumbling upon us as we saunter unsuspecting down the pavement.
This is the time of the classic mid-life crisis which goes something like the the classic Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime:
“How did I get here?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?...Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself yourself
My God!...What have I done?!”
As we get older still, we become even more focused on what we have and have not done in our lives. We might start to make lists… The film “The Bucket List” popularised the idea of making a list of things to achieve before life is done - before kicking the bucket.
I’ve looked at quite a lot of bucket lists. These lists have lots of fun and amazing adventures on them - although I seem to be in a minority in having no interest in jumping out of a plane or off a mountain. Call me crazy...
There’s lots of traveling on those lists, learning language or how to play an instrument, getting in shape, physical endurance things like marathons and triathlons, and business objectives too.
Some of these things are great and some of them I really want to do. I believe in learning and growing, I’m happier when I’m more fit and less fat, I’d like to see more of the world.
Bucket lists tend to be about accumulating experiences, as though we can build up a stockpile of memories that will make us feel complete and accomplished.
But which of these things do I really want in the bucket?
Is it the things that will make me happy?
The things that give my life meaning?
The things that change how others see me?
The things that expand my perspectives?
The things that make me a better person?
Grab a sheet of paper and a pen and write a ten item bucket list: 10 things you want to do before your time on this ride is up.
In the reading, Ralph Waldo Emerson - a Unitarian sage of the 19th century - offers his definition of success.
He speaks of laughter and of love, of respect and affection earned.
Part of success, he says, is to give of one’s self and to make the world a better place. It is to seek out the best in other people, rather than to condemn their worst.
As a young man, my aims were material. I sought success in income, possessions, and in status as reflected by the estimation of others. Titles, publications, patents, job titles, numbers of people I supervised.
In mid-life, with much help from a Unitarian congregation, I began to see success differently. All the markers of achievement I had so long valued now appeared valueless - like gold revealed to be nothing more than painted lead.
At some point, perhaps in a workshop, I was invited to imagine myself on my death-bed, looking back over the life I had led. Would I be content with what I had done? Would I have great regrets about my actions or my inaction? Would I recognise the person I had become as the person I wanted to be?
For me, this type of question and the self-examination it provoked led me to leave biotechnology and embark on a new path - a path where I was starting from the bottom - where I was a beginner - where all of the signs of success as I had previously understood it were wiped away.
Look at the 10 things you have written on your list. This may be hard… Cross out seven of them. Cross out the seven that will matter least to you when you look back from the end of life’s journey.
You have three left. If you could achieve only one of those three in your lifetime, which one would it be? Put a star next to that one.
We lose ourselves in the pursuits of daily life
Occupied in the striving and the gathering up that we hope will ease our sorrow and lighten our burdens
In the end, what we have gained is lost to the winds
All we leave to the future is what we have given
Live a life that matters.