…life every now and then becomes literature…as if life had been made and not happened. – Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
Only through art can we achieve perfection. Through poetry and literature, a beautiful painting, a thoughtful sonnet, or perhaps a prayer for peace, we can put forth a thought, a story, an image, or a philosophical query that achieves precisely what the artist or author intended. When I write, I edit and re-write, changing words and sentences, restructuring paragraphs, until I am satisfied that the combination of written words has the desired effect. But life, as we know, is not a work of art; perfection eludes us all.
“We have two lives,” wrote Bernard Malamud in The Natural, “the life we learn with and the life we live after that.” I have often longed for the chance to re-live my past with the benefit of hindsight and experience; to undo past mistakes, rectify wrongs, and make my life more extraordinary. But that is not the life God granted us. We are not perfect beings. The world is not a perfect world. It is why time is so precious and fleeting.
One need only scan the morning headlines to see that life is fragile, that memories and experiences can exist and disappear within the space of a day. The daily obituaries help us mourn and remember the more famous among us. Recently, we lost two public figures I have admired along the way, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, whose magnificent speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984 continues to inspire; and former Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, a liberal Republican, champion of civil rights, and the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate.
And then there was Paris. The massacre of innocent journalists and cartoonists by a group of Islamic extremists brought home how vulnerable we are to tragedy. One morning we awaken, shower, and eat breakfast before starting our daily commute. We exit the train platform and walk to our office building, say hello to the lobby attendant, and grab a morning coffee before sitting at our desk and beginning the day’s work. And then, in an instant, it is finished. A flash of gunfire and we are forever gone, but a distant memory to the people we have touched and loved along the way.
I have for most of my life evaded suffering and great heartache. But despite this good fortune, I have made my share of mistakes and not always risen to a form of my higher self. There are things I would like to do over, days I would like to re-live, different choices I might make if confronted with them again. But these are trivialities in the long view of life, a speck of molecular dust that make-up the vast and varied galaxies of the universe. As time passes and memories fade, the best we can do is cherish our remaining days and make the most of them.
Lately I find myself contemplating the poetry of William Wordsworth; thinking of those who have left us, whose memories we cherish. Of family members and friends we have lost along the way, through this journey we call life. “Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower, we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.” As I grow older and understand better the fragility of life, the quickness with which it can be taken from us, I have tried to appreciate each day with grace and humility, setting aside the impatience of my younger days. I cannot change what has already been, but I know now I can more wisely value the gift of life, the beauty of nature, and the power of art in all its forms. “In the primal sympathy which having been must ever be; in the soothing thoughts that spring out of human suffering; in the faith that looks through death, in years that bring the philosophic mind.”
There are times I yearn for the lost innocence of youth, the freedom and joy of believing that life is infinite and the possibilities endless. When the days run long, I connect with Bernard Malamud’s description of Roy Hobbs: “He remembered how satisfied he had been as a youngster, and that with the little he had had - a dog, a stick, an aloneness he loved (which did not bleed him like his later loneliness), and he wished he could have lived longer in his boyhood. This was an old thought with him.” Looking back with regret, atoning for past mistakes, seeking redemption – these are universal themes, experienced in life as in art. But only in literature and film, in poetry and theatre, can life be perfected and unfinished business resolved.
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“The secret of every being is the divine care and concern that are invested in it,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel. “Something is at stake in every event.” Too often, we fail to appreciate the power of our encounters, the seemingly trivial moments when missed opportunities preclude us from affecting the lives of others, and from spreading human compassion. The homeless man I ignore on the corner of JFK and 19th Street; the security guard I walk past every day, not bothering to learn his name or understand his story; the many acquaintances along the way whose lives I never touched. We live in a society founded on the altar of self-interest, on individual expression and achievement. Concern for the common good is considered weak or subversive. We are afraid of embarrassment, unwilling to take risks with each other for the sake of human advancement and a better world.
“I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit, never embarrassed at the profanation of life,” wrote Heschel in Who Is Man? (Stanford University Press, 1965) nearly a half-century ago. “A world full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival. There are slums, disease, and starvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas. Social dynamics is no substitute for moral responsibility.” Has anything changed? We live in a time of religious extremism born of alienation and disconnectedness, growing inequality, human suffering and mass violence, political division and self-righteousness. With a sense of hopelessness in many parts of the world, humanity needs a sense of embarrassment. For we have misunderstood the meaning of our existence.
Human beings are better than we allow ourselves to be, individually and collectively, each of us more profound, more intricate than is revealed in our daily lives. “What is the truth of being human?” asks Heschel. It is found, he says, in our “lack of pretension, the acknowledgement of opaqueness, shortsightedness, inadequacy.” Let us strive for goals within and outside of our reach and rise to a higher level of existence. As a new year begins, let us proceed with humility and kindness, empathy and understanding. Let us edit and re-write the script and approach the perfection we seek in art, literature, poetry and film; in the best and most compassionate forms of religion and morality. For in the end, we should strive to endow not just individual and isolated acts with meaning, but to shape our lives, our total existence, with significance and purpose. As mortal beings we can never achieve perfection. Instead, says Heschel, “The truth of being human is gratitude; the secret is appreciation.”