11 December 2010

Going eyeball to eyeball with death (and other life lessons I hope to learn before I really die)

This is the nickel version of my “last lecture” given 27 November in Kabul, Afghanistan. The series of talks at the American university was inspired by the last (and upbeat) lecture of Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, before he succumbed to pancreatic cancer on 25 July 2008. The series asks the speaker, “If you knew that was your last lecture, what would you choose to share?”

Lesson # 1: Going eyeball to eyeball with death can reveal much about life.

For many people, the first response to any conversation about death is to change the subject. But thinking about death can be a way of thinking about the life we want to live. Meditations on the inevitability of death, the uncertainty of its hour, have a deep heritage in many faith traditions. For me, it was represented in images of a solitary medieval Christian monk contemplating the desiccated human skull he held in one outstretched hand.

Going eyeball to eyeball with death is an attempt to cut through the clutter of our daily routine. How will I behave if I knew my life was to be snatched away before morning? How will I close the gap between the self I am and the self I want to be if I can’t put it off one day longer?

My last meaningful experience with death occurred at 8:11 a.m. on Tuesday, May 18, when a 725-kilogram suicide car bomb exploded less than 60 meters from where my friend and I were running on the edge of Kabul. We had a thick stone and concrete block wall between us and the stuffed Toyota minivan when it detonated, killing 18, mostly civilians. In that split second of numbed awareness, I saw that our bodies were unbloodied and intact and I ran away from the fiery, smoking breach.

I almost immediately felt gratitude, though I soon called myself lucky and asked: Isn’t it about time to leave Kabul? It was only months later, thousands of miles from Afghanistan, I realized I was being asked an even more fundamental question: Where ever I am, what kind of person do I want to be at this moment?

Lesson # 2: Common beliefs and values aren’t always right or wise
Corollary A: If everyone likes you, you must be doing something wrong.

Every society values conformity as a means by which to ensure it continuity, but that doesn’t mean the dominant values are wise or in the best interests of every member of society. For example, the status quo in any patriarchal society—and they are many examples we could pick from—depends on beliefs, values and norms that would have its members believe that men can and should enjoy a disproportionate share of power and privileges.

In American popular culture, there is a long tradition of blaming poverty on poor persons. In this view, poverty is a result of bad personal choices made by poor persons. However, I am convinced that most poverty is a result of structural inequalities, by which I mean clear-headed policy choices, not individual characteristics. In a country as wealthy as the United States, the only thing that prevents the virtual elimination of the worst cases of poverty is the belief that the problem cannot be solved—in other words, a lack of public will.

If you are true to your best nature and create time to listen the “still voice” within each of us, you will be forced to respond to deeper callings that not always popular or fashionable. You will be called to live with courage and integrity and that will, at times, put you at odds with the dominant beliefs and values of your culture. As I grow older, I am convinced that one of the greatest challenges in life is to resist the relentless forces of conformity.

Each of us is indebted to those people who refused to conform the dominant beliefs of their times, to those persons who said, no, the earth is not flat; no, the earth is not the center of the universe; no, human slavery is wrong; or no, it is not right to work someone 12 hours a day for six days a week for starvation wages.

I am not trying to suggest that any one person can fight every battle they run across. A life of integrity acknowledges that compromises are necessary, often for the sake of others. But in each life there will arise a handful of situations in which you will be asked to compromise your deepest personal values. How you respond to those challenges—and, believe me, you will know when they occur—can profoundly influence how you see the rest of your life.

Lesson # 3: It may be easier to act our way into new thinking than to think our way into a new way of behaving.

Stated differently:
Act differently and the mind will follow
• As you behave you will believe; as you behave you will be.

Don’t believe that your behavior will change only after your thinking changes. Instead, if we change our behavior, a new way of thinking will likely follow. It may be more accurate to say that the new thinking will catch up with our new behavior. It may take a few days, but more likely weeks or months later.

Lesson # 4: Play as hard as you work.
Corollary A: No one on their death bed ever wished they spent more time at the office.

Hard work has intrinsic value, but the belief that it can guarantee success is simply untrue. I know many people, some of whom are single parents, who work two and three jobs to provide as best they can for their families. At the end of the day, they are not successful by any yardsticks. They are simply tired and worn out.

On the other hand, many of the most materially successful people I know benefitted from the privileges they did nothing to earn. Some were to wealthy parents who were socially well connected. They didn’t necessarily work any harder they anyone else around them but they enjoyed the advantage of a better starting point.

Life is not fair, and it is waste of time to act like it is or should be. Accept what you have, work hard, do your best, take pride in what you do, but don’t expect to be rewarded. Effort is what is important, not the rewards of this life

The uncertainty of rewards, even if they are deserved, is one reason why it is important to find something that brings you joy and to do it reckless abandon. Play should not be seen as the luxury of the privileged. It can be making the time to build mudpies or sandcastles with your children, creating time to read a book for leisure, flying a kite, or taking a walk in the morning when the air is fresh and before the worries of the day pile up on your shoulders. Play is active participation in the beauty of creation. It is as necessary to life as breathing.

Lesson # 5: Define success on your terms
Corollary A: Don’t forget to think about what you leave behind after you are dead and gone.

Rest assured that if you don’t define what you mean by success, someone or something else will do it for you. In fact, many bosses would be happy to do it for you. So would the mass media. If you need any help, your mother-in-law will might have some good ideas for you.

There is a quote I like about success that has often been attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the influential American thinker on matters of individuality, freedom and human possibility. Unfortunately, many scholars agree the original version of what follows was written by Bessie Stanley in 1904.
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.
One last thought: Life is much too serious not to have a sense of humor

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