Once upon a time there was a tree growing at the edge of the forest. It was an oak tree, strong of trunk and limb, destined to live hundreds of years. Growing where it did, the oak tree was able to see the forest behind, the wide expanse of valley below, and the mountains on the horizon. Right from the start, this tree talked to the other trees to find out just what the forest was, the role of trees, and what to expect as time went by.
The oak tree liked being an oak tree. An oak tree is as good as or better than any other tree. An oak tree has strong roots and a magnificent canopy; everyone says it has to be one of the handsomest trees in the forest.
In mid-life, the tree wondered about a few things, including the birds that flew by or rested among its leaves, the activities in the wide valley, the river flowing through it, the humans that came and went, and the clouds and sky.
As the oak tree aged, some regrets seemed to surface. It thought about other trees swaying in the wind, dancing with the breeze instead of clenching and fighting to stay tall. In winter it sometimes wondered about the trees that stayed green—how weird is that? And it thought, “Oh, to be a bird once or twice, to fly high and see the entire forest, to go beyond the valley, to soar over the mountains.”
Being an oak tree, it didn’t dwell on these kinds of thoughts. It was an oak tree and would be a good one. And it was, for almost five hundred years.
But you are not a tree, oak or otherwise. You’re a person. How important are your roots? Do you want to fight against the wind? Would you like to soar over those far away mountains?
Life is a mystery. None of us did anything to make it happen. Without warning, we slip into life one day, struggle to make our way through it, and eventually stop living, sometimes while we’re still alive.
We are made of cosmic dust from a biochemical recipe handed down from a million years ago. And although the ingredients are the same, the recipe has infinite variations.
Each of us is unique, yet similar to all. We see the same night sky as our grandparents and dream the same dreams as the pharaohs. Parts of me are identical to parts of you. We feel the same pain, the same joys, and ask the same questions.
But we don’t follow the same paths. You know things I don’t. You grasp ideas I wouldn’t understand. I have struggled where you succeed in an instant, and you have created a list of accomplishments that would amaze me.
We come in all sizes, shapes, IQs, races, nationalities, attitudes, temperaments, and just about everything else. What we all have in common is this experience we call life. Some see it as a burden, others a gift. What your life ultimately is depends on you.
If for no other reason, your life is precious because it will end. Before it ends, whether this is a long time or all too brief, you have the opportunity to decide how to define your life and what should be done with it. Life isn’t so much what you experience as what you decide.
By what you decide, you add something to your identity and character like so many coats of paint or, more gracefully, like layers on a pearl. You change every day, maybe improving, maybe becoming worse, or maybe becoming more stagnant. Your life is made up of thousands of moments where you chose one way over another. The effect of these decisions can last a few minutes in the case of choosing cornflakes for breakfast or for a lifetime when proposing marriage to the love of your life. Until you die and there are no more decisions, what you do with your options means everything.
Death is actually the reason I wrote this book. My life’s work began when I was seventeen and in a high school social studies class. I watched a scratchy black and white documentary film of World War II, viewing bombs dropping out of airplanes and big guns firing at towns miles away. My critical moment was seeing a young American pilot kneeling beside a railroad track when suddenly a soldier with a rifle walked up and shot him in the back of the head. I was stunned. Soon the bell rang and my classmate gathered up their books and left the room. Down the hall students were slamming lockers, jostling each other, laughing, having a good time. I was haunted by the images of the pointed rifle, the man lying dead, the casual turning away.
These images made me realize that life can be horrific and life comes to an end, often without warning and often without dignity or meaning. Because we die, what we do while alive acquires profound importance. We must do it right, in a very limited time and often with limited resources. Death ends all possibilities. While we are alive, we must create personal meaning or we have wasted every reason for our existence.
A friend of mine died not long ago. Before heading out for an hour’s bike ride one Sunday morning, he paused to kiss his wife who was in the kitchen stirring up pancakes for their two kids. That was the last kiss he would give her. While coasting down a hill on his way home, his wheels slipped on loose sand that had blown over the road. He fell and hit his head on the pavement. Rushed to the hospital, he was given aid in the emergency room and swiftly moved into intensive care. It soon became apparent that his brain no longer functioned. His wife allowed the many tubes and wires to be disconnected and he died.
At his funeral, one of his friends stood at the lectern and compared life to a novel. “No one,” he said, “asks how long a book is. We want to know how good, how interesting, how worthwhile it is.” He said our friend may have had a short life, but it was of value because of his contributions to the community and his many loving relationships.
We all have an idea of what the end will be like. No longer do our bodies simply wear out and die of old age. We will succumb to some well-defined clinical process. Heart disease will be the end for many of us, with cancer the next greatest killer and stroke third.
Often, the ending of life is a slow process of hardening arteries, deteriorating organs and thinning bones. There may be pain that makes us gasp with every step. We might forget the name of a friend and then who she is. These and many other elements of disease narrow the boundaries of our world and chip away at our quality of life. The end probably will not be pleasant or dignified.
I used to think that having a dignified death was important; the kind where the family gathers around the deathbed to hear your last words of wisdom and to express their love before the final good-byes. I worried that a bad death, like lying unresponsive for months in intensive care or slipping in the shower and banging my head would ruin an otherwise satisfactory life.
It took a while, but I finally realized that both the beginning and end of life are relatively unimportant. The portion of life we have the most control over is the middle part, where we have the time and the opportunity to figure out who we are and what we want to do.
Our job, it seems to me, is to do this very well, adding value to our existence as we collect our personal moments. Wouldn’t it be nice to live a life you know you can be proud of, now and later? This idea raises some interesting questions.
Do you think your life should have meaning?
Do you think others’ lives have meaning?
What makes your life important?
How much time do you spend watching TV?
How much time do you spend cleaning your house?
Is your value found in your pants size, your income, or how smooth your skin feels?
Is it better to talk than to listen, consume rather than share, or imagine rather than act?
What amount of time should be spent working compared to eating, sleeping, relaxing, and making love? What would you do today if you knew you would die tomorrow?
In the twelfth grade, I began seeking the answers to such questions. Studying philosophy led to college courses in psychology, the science of human behavior. I searched for answers to the question I phrased in my mind as “why should people get out of bed in the morning?”
While knee-deep in the ignorance of youth, I looked for the one, universal and eternal answer. I tried out concepts like value, truth, contentment, meaning, serving God, serving man, avoiding trouble, and minimizing pain. I also learned about people simply trying to survive another day, raise children, find food, and stay warm and dry. The questions are the eternal “who am I, where am I going, and how do I get there.”
An important consideration must be our biology. We are a carbon-based life form, each of us created from unique strands of DNA. Much of our basic functioning is initiated and controlled through our nervous system and brain. Although we are “hard-wired” current research strongly suggests that our brains and body are adaptable. We can change. No matter what our natural tendencies, we can improve beyond our biology. We can take control of our lives.
Personal Wisdom is asking the questions, knowing the answers, testing those answers every day, and having the courage to change the answers and even the questions when they are no longer the right ones.