By LENNOX FARRELL
It is not every month, year or decade that one reaches the Biblical three score and 10 years of age. Arriving there, one can experience a sense of surprise.
It is as if one, en route on a bus, arrived at a destination known but unexpected. A destination listed on the schedule, but in fine print and for someone else, surely. Such sentiments are however valid if “love, selflessly expressed” isn’t only a destiny but is also one’s manner of travelling.
It might be, too, that as one’s life soars into orbit between birth and death, that one’s solar sense of invincibility is finally eclipsed by a lunar sense of inevitability. Or that the items on one’s “to do” list is longer than the time and energy left to finalize. Or that it is one’s sense of urgency that incapacitates, even as it intensifies.
Questions abound. Some wise, some otherwise. Among these are some once considered far-of philosophically, now body-checking you face-on. For example, questions about the meaning of life? Of the value of one’s efforts? Of one’s priorities? Yes, priorities.
On the meaning of life and inevitable death, there are tales worth considering. One is about a servant whose master sent him to the marketplace in Baghdad. There the servant saw Death staring. He hurried home, scared.
“I’ll go to the marketplace,” the master consoled him. “Meanwhile, go to Samarra and there await me.”
In the marketplace, in response to the master’s annoyance at Death scaring his servant, Death replied, “I didn’t intend to frighten him. In fact, I was surprised to see him here. Our appointment is in Samarra.”
Another tale, this one true is of a woman, Augusta Wilhelmina DuBique. Advised by missionary doctors in Trinidad five decades ago that she either “cut off her diabetic big-toe or it will kill her”, she replied, as calm as the hills above, “No! When Shiloh comes, He’ll resurrect all my bones, not some.” For her, my maternal grandmother, in this life there are issues more significant than dying.
Among some others, for example some Canadian communities, generally more established, “quality of life” issues are what define life and thereby death. They ask: are we living longer or dying slower? The choice here is not between life and death but between life and dignity. That’s a choice?
And these types of choices are further compounded by new specialities, uncertainties and fears in science, like biosynthetics. In what type of world will our offspring live when one cannot distinguish between a human being and a cyborg clone? When life and death are mere options? How does the future impinge on the present?
Today, at least for personal reasons, the present is more tied to the past, especially when one can see in one’s receding hairline, medical history and girth, those of one’s parents and grandparents and gain some sense both of comfort and loss. Of staying and of passing.
Confirming this glance backwards, the poet, Thomas Gray (1716-1771), in his epic poem, Elegy in a Country Churchyard, defined life and death for several generations of literature and philosophy. Among his most memorable lines is how priorities for which to die: power, glory, wealth and beauty can be illusory and deceptive:
“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power and all that beauty, all that wealth e’re gave, await alike the inevitable hour, the paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
Therefore, for me, someone of a spiritual bent, a believer in redemption and practitioner of prayer, “priority defines all”. And this in spite of being one who preaches more than he practises. Priorities nonetheless show how dispensable we are. In fact, the priorities we choose as our mentors, eventually also become the monitors of how wasted or useful our life was or is. One’s epitaph reflects the sum of one’s priorities.
Finally, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said something that to me rings eternally true. Paraphrasing, “if one doesn’t have a cause for which one can die, one hasn’t a reason for living”. My grandmother, AWB, would have agreed with him. But so, too would some of today’s “suicide bombers”.
The defining difference? In my opinion, one’s priorities must include such lauded human characteristics as decency, justice and truth. However, one can pursue justice to the ironic point of tyranny. One can laud decency and endorse cowardice. One can believe in truth and exclude all of the above.
To me, the nursing mother of them all is compassion. As the top priority, compassion is the guarantor that the others not lose their way. With it, every generation, with or without cyborgs, lifestyle versus deathstyle, will find its way towards further humanizing itself. Without it, all is lost long before we know it. For compassion is the synonym for “love, selflessly expressed”, even on an incomplete “to do” list.