Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


One of the SKS's finest alumni sent this around today:

A colleague forwarded the link (at end of email) to me and I wanted to pass it
along. Not because I think it is some great word of advice, but because I think
it's not and am interested in other perspectives....

I have grown close to many residents since I came to work at VMRC in January. Last week, one of those residents, John See, died. That's nothing new. I work at a retirement community. People I know die every week.

He used to stop by my office a couple times a week and chat about anything and everything...his wife died 6 months ago. He told me about his experience in the hospital after by-pass surgery when he was hallucinating about demons and the floor being filled with a half foot of water. He talked about how the most important thing in his life was his wife, she was gone and he didn't know what to do anymore. He asked me if I like to drink beer. He asked me if I believe in God, because if I didn't, it was
about damn time to figure out why not. He was a sweet and lonely man.

It wasn't so much /that/ he died, but/ how/ he died that's haunting me. Mr. See had a brain aneurysm that doctors had been keeping an eye on for over 6 months. A housekeeper in Mr. See's facility was making coffee in the lounge when she heard him calling her name. John always played tricks on the housekeepers, so she thought he was up to something once again. But something in his voice didn't sound right to her, so she took a few steps back and looked down the hallway. Mr. See was crawling toward her on his hands and knees, pleading for her help. She ran straight to him, yelling for someone to call 911, immediately sat on the floor and wrapped her arms around him. He died within a couple minutes. Paramedics said his aneurysm burst.

I'm sure the aneurysm was the biological cause, but it seems to me that loneliness was a culprit, too. It was as if he waited until he was with someone. In his last moments, he couldn't stand to be alone. And isn't that how we all are? We're born alone. We die alone. And we spend all the time in between avoiding loneliness at all costs..seeking distraction at every turn.

I loved Mr. See, but I don't want to be crawling on my hands and knees, begging for help when death comes. I /want/ to go gentle into that dark night and live my life so
that I don't have to rage against it. Is that possible? Do even the wisest of men rage at the moment of their death?

That's why the following article that was emailed across our campus bothered me so much. I think the aspects of cultivating ourselves that Dr. Ruppenthal discusses are important. But the last step (Build Your Legacy) especially talks about leaving your mark on the world. Create something that will outlast your life. He says, "Age
matters less when we pour ourselves into people and things that will in their own way continue us." It talks about how the elderly should pass on what they know to the younger generation. Aren't we doing a dis-service by encouraging these elders to leave their legacy as opposed to face into what is inevitable much sooner than later in their case?

I suppose his article is meant to be a resource for those who are aging and are scared by it, so it provides comfort (and I think they need comfort) for them to have a list of things they can do not to be scared of death. And, perhaps, I'm thinking about it from the SKS perspective that we should face into death /now/ and scare the shit out of ourselves, so we'll be as ready as we can when the time actually comes. I just don't think our lives should be spent on leaving a legacy so much as trying to understand our desire to leave a legacy in the first place. (Which then leads me to ask, if I really don't care about leaving a legacy, why do I want to do work that I define as "meaningful"?)


It's neither here nor there. I just wanted to pass it along.

Here is my reply to her:

There are two aspects to "leaving the legacy": one focused on _giving_, and the other focused on building something that will last. The first is laudable and wise; the second is understandable but ultimately doomed to failure. ALL things are impermanent, even those things that might outlast your own lifetime. I believe that the _effects_ of your life can ripple outwards and have profound effects in the world, both now and in the future ... but whether those effects will be recognizable as a "legacy" is doubtful.

Moreover, I have come to be skeptical of any philosophy based on teleology -- the idea that the value or meaning of what happens NOW is dependant on what happens in the FUTURE. We can't stake our meaning on the future, because the future never comes. There is no "end" at which we can evaluate whether we "won" or "lost".

One important thing to consider is that many philosophers, especially Rose, thought that the drive to give to others and do good was _directly_ related to the search for the Truth. Rose believed that his own enlightenment experience would not have happened had he not pledged to share his discoveries with others. You may not know what is ultimately "good" right now . . . but you still have to _want_ to do good in order to find out.

It strikes me as sad that people have to come face to face with their own mortality before they can begin to understand that the only meaning they can find in their lives is in what they give rather than what they get. If someone lives their whole life with the fixed intention to do good, I suspect their "legacy" will emerge all on its own.


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