One of the most disturbing of Scott Adams' Dilbert cartoons is of the familiar robed figure with a scythe who comes up behind Dilbert at his computer and says solemnly, "Gilbert, your time has come." Stunned, Dilbert says "Gilbert?! My name is Dilbert! You have the wrong guy!" The figure with the scythe then says, "Ooops! Sorry. Mind if I just wait around until your number comes up?"
As a matter of fact, I do! You will understand if I take that cartoon a rather more seriously than others may. I suppose that is why I was struck by a Boston Globe column by Donald Murray, "Putting Time on My Side." He wrote on the occasion of his 70th birthday and recounted earlier experiences which brought him to the brink of wisdom. He was a paratrooper 50 years ago, and he recalled one particularly riveting training jump:
"My main chute does not open and I release my reserve chute that flies out and wraps itself around another paratrooper. I become a dangerous pendulum to him, and I look up and see that my first chute has partly opened. I reach down, take my knife from my leg, hack myself free from my reserve then make a hard but safe landing. "What I remember most from this moment of terror is an infinite calm. Time had slowed down. I had all the time I needed - in that it took just 47 seconds to identify a problem, choose and so act on it. In those moments of concentration I had little awareness of the ground rushing up. I had time for all the living I needed to do."
He concluded, "At 70 the ground is rushing up again, but I have the time within each ordinary moment, for all the living that will make the commonplace uncommon, the unimportant significant, the expected unexpected."
I grant you it is a rather dramatic image - even a frightening image, but it does get your attention. As we stand at the beginning of a new year, it is as good a time as any to consider something a little deeper than new year's resolutions, the weather and the NFL playoffs. That something is the fact that we are finite - we who were born will die. However, in that reality lies human significance in the great scheme of things - which is what religion is all about.
Before we are bogged down in despond and despair on being reminded of this, consider Walt Kelly's comic strip Pogo: Churchy La Femme is passing the day with Porky in that leaky little boat down in that leaky little swamp that is their home, reading the newspaper, the headline of which proclaims,: "Sun to burn out in 3 billion years, ending all life on earth." Churchy, pondering this "impending" eventuality, breaks into self-pitying tears crying, "Woe is me...I'm too young to die," to which the ever-wise and sarcastic Porky responds, "Aw, shut up...you're lucky to be here in the first place."
Porky has a point. Now what is the difference between Churchy and Porky? They live in similar circumstances, sharing much of their lives, but they have entirely different attitudes toward life itself. Churchy has a very literalistic and quantitative perspective on her life. Without a cosmic - or should I say religious - perspective, she relates her admittedly brief span of life to potential cosmic catastrophe. Porky, somewhat more pragmatic - puts a different spin on finitude - we're lucky to be here in the first place. That attitude of gratitude for being is at the heart of religion.
Attitude. Like many perfectly good words, "attitude" has become distorted in the contemporary slang use of the word. He or she's got an "attitude." I'm not sure exactly what that means, but it surely isn't good. And yet our attitude toward the dual reality of living and having to die is all important.
Human temperament plays a crucial role in our lives - how we address what fate flings in our path. There seem to be three basic approaches to the stresses and strains of human existence: anxiety, irritability, and Úlan. We have all been there and done that. What particularly interested me about the third alternative is observing it in people who seem able to bounce back from adversity with a love of living.
They are innately disposed, in the words of one researcher, "to celebrate the beauty of existence and the wonders of the interior life and external connections despite being surrounded by unanswerable questions, ambiguous dilemmas, and the certainty of loss and death."
While we, of course, differ in the difficulty life presents to us, what distinguishes us even more is what we do with what we are given. Some of us sniffle at minor adversities and routine difficulties, while others of us manage incredible courage in the face of overwhelming suffering.
At the same time I have been surprised to learn how much genetics plays in our temperament - in the way we face life. There is much in us that is inborn and resistant to change. However, ironically, that is all the more reason to cultivate that within us which we CAN change - to help create for ourselves and for others an attitude that ultimately affirms life even in the face of suffering and death. That is the role of religion. As world religions scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith puts it, "To be religious is to find the world significant." And I would add - life - to find life significant.
I'm not really sure how we do that - how we program ourselves to take the "Úlan" path, to find life good despite - even with - everything. I'm not really sure how we encourage others to take that spiritual path either. I don't believe it is something we can teach. It is something each of us struggles with in the deepest recesses of the soul. We can engage in the struggle ourselves - we can encourage the struggles of others - we cannot just make it happen. It is the work of a lifetime. And as we gets older we realizes that this particular work cannot go on forever. With comedienne Lily Tomlin, we may be tempted to say that "I always wanted to be somebody, but I should have been more specific." I tend to identify with writer Doris Grumbach, who used to look at "help wanted" ads for clues to the human condition. Her research prompted her to write "That being old is the single great limitation upon potentiality. There is not time to become anything else. There is barely enough time to finish being what it is you are."
Yet this is not to be interpreted as a discouraging word. Why would any of us want to finish becoming what we are? What is the point of it all to be finished creating ourselves? While there is in each of us something of anxiety, irritability, there are times when our Úlan shines through. The task is to let it shine more brightly more often.
Here is where a religious approach to living differs from the merely psychological. The mantra of too much new age psychology is "if it feels good, do it." However, there is a deeper meaning to the words "To "feel better." Peter Kramer, in his book Listening to Prozac, belittles the idea that healthy people can take prozac to feel even better. He goes on to state that "to feel better" means "to feel one's feelings better, including sadness or anger, without getting stuck in them."
Religion is not a "feel good" enterprise in the sense of life as a parade from happiness to ecstasy and back. The religious sentiment is happiness at a much deeper level - at the level of a spiritual zest for living, knowing always there will be terrible times, frequent frustrations and many moments of meaninglessness. The surprise is that we still believe life is eminently worthwhile.
Local newspaper columnist Dick Dougherty, a self-described "old geezer," gives us a witty example of this spirit among the elderly. He describes a shopping tour with his wife for floor tile. "'This floor tile has a lifetime guarantee,' the salesman said. 'Can't you do any better than that?, said my wife. The salesman didn't laugh. Maybe he didn't get it, or maybe he was at a loss for words....At another store a salesman showed us some parquet wood flooring. 'This will last you 30 years,' he said. She looked at me and smiled, signaling it was my turn. As usual, I flubbed it. Fast comebacks are not part of my arsenal of social skills. 'Darn!' I said when we were back in the car. 'I should have told him to show us something about 15 years less durable.' 'Not very funny but nice try,' she said. When friends in our age group suffer one of their frequent momentary memory loss attacks, they often say, 'I'm have another of my senior moments.' But my wife looks at the bright side: 'Memory loss isn't so bad. You meet new people every day.'"1Comedian Bill Cosby provides yet another good-humored understanding of the latter stage of the life process. He said, "In addition to telling me that they want me around a long time, my children also like to cheer me up by saying, 'You look good, Dad.' Strangely enough, the older I get, the more often I look good; and therefore my handsomeness will reach its peak when they bury me."
I confess I am a bit more seriously philosophical. Shortly after my father died in 1986. I was helping my mother clean out my father's workshop, which had become a depository for a great miscellany of items. As we dug through what could only be labeled "trash," I cam upon a treasure: a stuffed dog with which I had grown up.
To say it was the worse for wear would be an understatement. It was weather-beaten, grimy and well-worn with the love of an only child. The relationship of an only child and his stuffed animals is a very intimate one.
We stood there a moment, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, and so we did neither. Nevertheless, it was a moment of truth about a time that could never be recaptured. Life moves in only one direction. Instinctively, we both knew it.
But there, for a moment, standing ankle deep in "trash," we had relived wondrous years. I only hope that when my sons sort through the accumulated "trash" of my life, they too will find a treasure - a stuffed dog that had been literally loved to death.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said it well in words inscribed on the Bausch and Lomb building downtown, "The days come and go like muffled and veiled figures from a distant friendly party, but they say nothing, and if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them as silently away."
I notice a fundamental difference in human attitudes toward everything. It is the old saw that some see a glass half full while others see it half empty. Some seem to find problems in life, while others find possibilities. Some are quick to criticize while others are eager to praise. I do not understand why, save to suggest that an optimistic bias is a character trait worth cultivating. It just may serve to warm the chilling air.
Such an attitude is especially true in those of us in the second half of life where meanings past and present are what serve to propel us into a somewhat shorter future. There is, I know from personal experience, that temptation to a slight depression as one knows one has lived many more years than there are to be lived - by a large factor.
Such an attitude comprehends life quantitatively rather than qualitatively - in terms of numbers of years rather than the meaning of experience. And there is - as one grows older - if we have done it right - a deeper wisdom, a philosophical perspective, a joie de vivre - that comes only with experience.
As movie director Ingmar Bergman put it, "Old age is like climbing a mountain. You climb from ledge to ledge. The higher you get, the more tired and breathless you become, but your view becomes much more extensive."
There are many images for the sheer courage to be: Walt Kelly had another worth considering: Pogo Possum said, when we get to the bottom of a hill something makes us pull our little wagons back up for another scary ride down. To be sure it is scary - but somehow we are drawn to the task and the excitement, wondering what will come next.
In the novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, there was a character who said, just before his first parachute jump, "It'll be interesting to see just how this comes out." I couldn't have said it better myself as we jump into another new year.
Life is like a parachute. We are all on the glide path, some just beginning our flight, others of us near the ground. There are times when the chute does not open - things do not go as we planned them. There are times even when the auxiliary chute does not open. Not to panic. There is still time to act - still time to mend our ways - still time to discover life's ultimate Úlan. Live deeply. Learn much. Play the game with zest. Do not wallow in the past. Face the future unafraid. We are only here for a short visit. Don't hurry. Don't rush. And don't forget to enjoy the view on your flight. Have faith in the long new year given us. It is a blessing. And we are the blessed.