While I was trying to find a reprieve from the incessant 24/7 media coverage of the recent Paris shootings and bombings, I chanced upon a PBS show entitled First You Dream – The Music of Kander & Ebb, a tribute to John Kander and Fred Ebb, the legendary Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy-award winning songwriting team whose Broadway shows include Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and the irrepressible Flora, the Red Menace, their first collaboration and the show that was the vehicle for Liza Minnelli’s Broadway debut.
One of the songs featured in the program was a ballad entitled Life Is from the 1968 Kander and Ebb adaptation of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel Zorba the Greek into the Broadway musical, Zorba. The show opens (and ends) with the song Life Is, with lyrics that bolster Alexis Zorba’s credo that one must grab life while one can. (You can hear the song at the end of this post by clicking on it.) One line of the song particularly struck me. A character identified in the production only as The Leader sings:
“Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die, /Life is how the time goes by!”
Perhaps it was because two of my friends recently died that the words of the song really hit me and caused me to mull over the whole question of life and death – theirs and ultimately my own. Perhaps it was the philosopher in me that saw this line as significant. Perhaps I was just ready to hear those words. Perhaps I just liked the song. I don’t know. I only know that I was deeply moved by the song and that it made me think.
What also moved me was an article that I recently read by Michael Gartner about the life of his parents, predominantly, his father. The elder Gartner must have been quite a character and wish that I had known him because I really appreciate his attitude toward life. Gartner writes of the time when his father said to him, “Mike, do you want to know the secret of a long life?”
“I guess so,” Gartner said, knowing it probably would be something bizarre.
“No left turns,” he said.
“What?” Gartner asked.
“No left turns,” he repeated. “Several years ago, your mother and I read an article that said most accidents that old people are in happen when they turn left in front of oncoming traffic. As you get older, your eyesight worsens, and you can lose your depth perception, it said. So your mother and I decided never again to make a left turn.”
“What?” Gartner said again.
“No left turns,” he said. “Think about it. Three rights are the same as a left, and that’s a lot safer. So we always make three rights.”
“You’re kidding!” Gartner said, and he turned to his mother for support.
“No,” she said, “your father is right. We make three rights. It works.”
But then she added: “Except when your father loses count.”
Gartner was driving at the time, and almost drove off the road as he started laughing.
“Loses count?” Gartner asked.
“Yes,” his father admitted, “that sometimes happens. But it’s not a problem. You just make seven rights, and you’re okay again.”
Gartner couldn’t resist. “Do you ever go for 11?” he asked.
“No,” he said.” “If we miss it at seven, we just come home and call it a bad day.”
As I said, Gartner’s father must have been quite a character.
You know, Zorba was right: Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die. The emphasis is on the word “do,” not on “die.” In Gartner’s father’s case, a long life meant making no left turns. Not bad advice, actually. (UPS drivers are directed to make no left turns as well.) Near the end of his long life, Gartner’s dad said clearly and lucidly, “I want you to know that I am in no pain. I am very comfortable. And I have had as happy a life as anyone on this earth could ever have.” Those would be his last words. A short time later, he died. He was 102. Wouldn’t it be great is each of us could make those our last words.
Almost forty years after the premiere of Zorba, screenwriter Justin Zackham wrote The Bucket List. The film, directed by Rob Reiner and starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, follows two terminally ill men on their road trip with a wish list of things to do before they “kick the bucket,” hence the term “bucket list.”
I believe the message is clear: We should not postpone things that we know we want to do. None of us gets out of this world alive and cemeteries are filled with people dying to get in. None of us will live forever; none of us knows when we will die, or the state of our health throughout our lifetime. Therefore, we should try to live each day as if it were our last, and each day we should try to do one thing that brings us joy.
As I said earlier, the line from the song made me think once again about life. I came up with a few thoughts as a result of that reflection. Since these are my thoughts, you the reader, do not have to agree with them and that is fine with me. Come up with your own thoughts. You will find that to do so is a rewarding exercise. At any rate, let me share with you the fruits of my thinking.
- Do not waste time. Life is too short to wake up with regrets. Each of us has been allotted 1,440 minutes in a day. That is a rather generous allotment, and those minutes are to be used! We should love the people who treat us right. Forget about the ones who do not. If we have the chance, we should take it and if it changes our life, we should let it. As the great Yogi Berra once famously said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I could not have said it better.
- Be grateful for the time we have. We can lament that our time is finite, or we can rejoice that we have any time at all. It is our choice. We did not do anything to deserve our life. The sequence of events necessary for us to have arisen out of nothing were so unimaginably improbable that we should be stunned that we are even here in the first place. Out of all of the people who could have existed, you and I are among the vanishingly small percentage who actually do. We can complain that we do not have much time, or we can celebrate that we have a lot of time. Again, it is our call. At the cosmic level, our life is an infinitesimal dot between two infinite spans. In the musical Carousel, Oscar Hammerstein II strikes this note when he has Billy Bigelow say to Julie Jordan, “What are we? Just a couple of specks of nothing. Ah, you can’t even count the stars in the sky, and the sky’s so big the sea looks small; and two little people – you and I – we don’t count at all.” That may be true at the cosmic level, but at the human level, a lifetime is long enough to do amazing things – to pursue and master a dozen passions; to build a hundred friendships; to love and lose and love again, and again, and again; to chase our dreams and, if we care enough to work hard, to reach those dreams; and finally, to have an exciting, fulfilling, meaningful, and truly awesome life.
- Live as long as we can, and stay as healthy as we can. Grasp the branch firmly; do not fall before it breaks. And, perhaps most importantly, help others to live healthier, longer lives as well.
- Be less self-centered. The idea of an ongoing, constant self is an illusion. The child we once were no longer exists; as we change, we are continually dying and being reborn. As the French say: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same.) This saying makes me think, “Well, what is changing?” It’s a very broad question, but when you think about it, everything is changing all the time – including me. With this frame of mind, what we call death affects only the last of a long series of “me changes,” all of whose predecessors have already passed on.
- Recognize that we are part of the universe. In the bigger picture, our bodies are on loan from the universe. Our bodies are an incredibly fortunate collection of atoms forged in stellar furnaces and pulled together by gravity or some deeper, hidden force. When we are finished with our bodies, their atoms will be recycled to further move into the next stage of their upward journey toward ever more complex and useful forms. Celebrate that we have been able to participate in such a beautiful process.
- Live urgently. Trying to prepare for death is largely a waste of time. Once we are living our life we will love every day and will not want it to end. Closure will be impossible. The best we can do to prepare is to do everything we want to do, as often as we can. We should value our time highly and make the most of every day. Recall Hunter Thompson’s words in The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
- Appreciate that our time is finite. Not only is our time finite, but I, for one, do not want to know in advance when my branch will break. There are no guarantees in life including tomorrow. Only a fool makes definite plans for tomorrow. Tomorrow may never come.
- Do not make a practice of ruminating on our mortality; it is depressing as Hell and thoroughly counterproductive. Factor it into our behavior and then get on with living. We should think about it only to the extent that it improves our life by cultivating gratitude, compassion, selflessness, health, boldness, urgency, and meaning.
No one ever said life would be easy. The only promise we may have is that life most likely will be interesting.
Like Zorba, we should sing and dance while we can. We should tell people how we feel about them, repair regrets, and forgive. And we should not say anything that we would not want to stand as the last thing we ever said to them.
So get started on your bucket list. Add to it often. Make a promise to yourself to try doing one of the desires on your list each day or week.
Remember to not make left turns.
And enjoy life now – it does have an expiration date, you know!
And HAPPY THANKSGIVING