Forget About Dying. You Want a Good Life? Consider This.

“I don’t know who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was put.  I don’t even remember answering.  But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”

Dag Hammerskjold /Word For The Day 6/13/13

‘Wonder’ is allowing our hearts and minds to soften to the possibilities of that which is bigger than ourselves.  We experience Wonder through our five senses, in addition to the sense of ‘awareness’.  (where is the sense organ of awareness anyway?)  The word that describes this feeling best, for me, is the ancient Greek word ‘Arete’.  In English this is often translated as virtue, or excellence. But in Greek, arete implies respect for the presence of the Wholeness or Oneness of life.

My first vivid memory of ‘wonder’ was when I was 5 or 6 yrs old. It was an unusual morning because, among other things, I was alone with my parents, no older siblings around – and there were three.  We lived in The Bronx, all the apartment buildings 5 – 6 stories high. Early in the morning and quiet, very quiet. I felt a warm/cool moisture on my skin and everything smelled fresh and clean when I heard the loud ‘Caws’ of crows flying overhead.  And that was wonder-full. I now know that it was less a conscious thought than an awareness of that which was beyond me and a part of me.

Jump to Freshman year in College. I’m Biology major adjusting the focus on my binocular microscope to zoom in on a tiny piece of algae called “Spirogyra” – so named before the Rock Group.  Once focused I could barely take my eyes away.  Again, that sense of wonder, awe, and respect. How did this come to be?  These cells are so small, and the universe is so big, then how small is the smallest and how big is the biggest?  This time the experience was definitely more conscious. I was experiencing something I could not define, let alone explain. Oh, I could regurgitate what I’d been taught about the origin of life, and what was known at the time about the Universe.  But my experience was that there was something more. And I made a decision…to pursue this mystery. I wanted to know more.

There have been many more steps on my journey through life since then and, for the most part, decisions formed by a ‘fundamental option’ to appreciate all there is with respect – and sometimes with humility as well. This was my ‘YES’ to the Someone or Something.

On our path to dying we face many options, and with each word we utter or action we take we are creating our lives. We begin to sincerely consider the legacy we want to leave with the living when we are gone. Do we want to be remembered as callous or caring? generous or miserly? selfish or generous? helping or hurting? heavy or light-hearted?  No matter WHAT we do to earn a living, it will be HOW we carry it out that will define us. Have we been honest, accountable? Are we kind to others or do we engage in hurtful gossip or have we abused our authority and power?

This is the work of living well so we may meet death with peace and gratitude.  Too many people wait until they are forced to accept the inevitable, and increasingly imminent, reality of their own death before they begin to acknowledge their short-comings, sorrows, disappointments or resentments and then must hurry to make amends and to say their thank-yous. Or they don’t.  Far too much apologizing and forgiving and death’s door.  For others the closeness of death is a relief because all of their suffering through life will be over.

The Buddha is not the only one to acknowledge suffering in life – most of us agree. But, he, and many others have also said that by living a good life  we can also experience the cessation of suffering.  In its simplest form we may call this ‘doing good and avoiding evil’.   But evil is such a BIG word and I can hear your thoughts now, “I don’t do evil”.  Unfortunately, the work of living is not as clearly defined as black or white, this or that. This is where the work needs to be done.

Here’s another one: To know oneself is to know God. This one is a bit less clear.  It’s a good thing to volunteer at a Soup Kitchen, but how good is it when our heart feels only disdain rather than compassion? Pride rather than humility?

When we choose to do the work of living a good life, each step of the way, then our hearts will be light and suffering will be alleviated.  Rather than “raging against the dying of the light” (Dylan Thomas) we’ll be resting peacefully as we ride through the Last Great Adventure of this Life.

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