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Wednesday, September 2, 2009


You've probably heard a lot of cliches about how time is so precious, you should live each day as if it's your last; life is so short, so seize the day; today is the first day of the rest of your life; and so on. If you're like me, you probably think, ah, how true, but then promptly forget about the concept and become engrossed in whatever else is occupying your attention at the time. (While not quite managing to seize the day.)

One recent experience caused the idea to sink in a little more deeply than usual.

I had occasion to be in a large college athletic complex, and wandered the corridors of the building a bit. The halls were lined with photographs of every one of the college's teams for the past hundred years or so.

I looked at some of the photos and idly wondered, which one was the star athlete? Which guys were the smart ones? The ladies' men? Which one was the secret homosexual? Which ones went on to great success? Which ones didn't? Which ones died young? Sometimes you think you can detect the first four things from the photo, but usually you can't.

Then another thought sank in. The young men in all of the pictures were at the same point in their lives. They all had their entire lives still in front of them. And they all had hope, a commodity that tends to accompany unlined faces (and high hormones).

It was hard not to wonder what their lives were like. Because they were young, though, their concerns were probably pretty similar. Perhaps during wartime they were worried about going off to war. But other than that, their concerns were probably the universal collegiate ones: grades, girls, getting a job after graduation.

The other thing it was hard to avoid thinking about is how old they are now. Looking at the pictures of teams from the 1980's, I thought, these guys are middle-aged now; some may be unrecognizable from these photos. Looking at pictures from the late Sixties and early Seventies, when longer hair was in vogue, I wondered how many still had their hair.

Going back to the Fifties, I thought, if these guys are still alive, they're definitely oldsters by now. The guys from the Forties are mostly probably dead; some may even have been killed in the war. Any athlete surviving from the Thirties is well beyond the normal life expectancy. And from the Twenties, not one could be surviving.

All those young, hopeful faces, dead and gone forever.

When you contemplate these things, it's hard not to feel some sadness about the inevitability of decline. You also get a little sense of, what's the use of it all? We all scurry around like madmen, trying to make something of ourselves, but then we all end up in the same place (underground) anyway, so what was it all for?

When you're in this frame of mind, you're more susceptible to the messages listed in the first paragraph: live each day as if it's your last, etc. They sound trite. But they're also true -- which in turn is why people repeat them, and why they sound trite.

Life is fleeting. You really should grasp it. But therein lies the problem. How exactly does one grasp life? If you really live each day as if it's your last, that would, for most people, entail acting with scant concern for the consequences. So chances would be greater that it would be your last. Which really would make life fleeting.

Plus it's humanly impossible to continually live your life a constant level of peak emotional intensity, any more than you could run a marathon every day.

One thing you can do is compliment people, if they deserve it. It's an inexpensive way to make people feel good, and if you do it well, you can make people feel very good. That's something you should definitely do it before it's too late.

One of my neighbors seems to be on his last legs; his heart is giving out. I haven't seen him in his yard or driveway recently, and am afraid that he may be confined to his bed. I had intended to tell him what I thought of him, but now it may be too late. He's always been the best type of guy: Manly, but not macho. Friendly, but never intrusive. Helpful, and never asking a favor in return. Complimentary, but with no agenda. And completely trustworthy. (All qualities I tend to associate with WWII guys, which is what he was.) I should have told him that this is what I thought of him, but never did. Because he's significantly older than me, it never really felt as if it were my place to do so. But I do sort of regret never saying anything.

Then again, I'm not sure exactly how I would have conveyed these sentiments without sounding as if I were prematurely reading him his obituary, so maybe it's better I kept my mouth shut. (On a computer, I can say exactly what I want, no more and no less, thanks to editing; in person, I've never been able to edit myself as well, and my words comes out wrong disturbingly frequently.)

So the lesson of this post is.....Actually, I'm not sure what it is. Maybe it's, since you can't really always seize life by the throat without neglecting your day to day responsibilities, at least be generous with the compliments.


Anonymous said...

John, I am going to start the day by heeding your advice and paying your a compliment: that was so well put!

I really like what you had to say.

As to your neighbor who may be dying, I see your dilemma. I would imagine that, when he passes away, you will share your feelings in a letter to his family, and that will do some good. juliem

John Craig said...

Thank you JulieM.

Anonymous said...

Not my favorite state of mind.
If you make a conscious effort to follow all those cliches, it makes you think about death every time.
Better not to think about it and just try to enjoy little things every day. Complementing others, aka being nice, is always a good idea.

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- Thank you for your comment. I have mixed feelings about that. Obsessing about death is not healthy, but thinking about it every now and then is probably a good reminder to take stock.

Paul said...

Send your neighbor a note with the compliments. If I were in his shoes, I'd rather get your note than not get it. And that's even if I were on my deathbed.