Caitlin Flanagan works for The Atlantic magazine. She's a superb writer?one who's willing to examine some of the hardest issues of public controversy from different perspectives including, and this is what's most impressive about her, those that are inconvenient to her own particular point of view. A cancer survivor, she just turned 60. In a recent essay called The Day I Got Old?and in a way that was somehow beautifully sentimental and amusingly unsentimental at the same time?she wrote this:
I feel good about making it to 60 because almost 20 years ago, I was diagnosed with a vicious cancer, and there wasn't an oncologist in the country who would have given me Vegas odds on five years?Even though I currently have Stage IV cancer and will be on chemotherapy for the rest of my life, here I am. I've gotten to see my children grow up, and I never thought that would happen?(And though) I long ago promised myself that no matter what happened, I was never going to do any learning or growing from cancer?there's one lesson that you can't be this sick for this long without learning: There is no such thing as other people. There's just all of us, with our secret or public burdens, muddling through the best we can, many of us not doing an especially good job of it.
While it's hard for a young or perfectly healthy individual to simulate the point of view of someone who's actually experienced the world from this perspective, some of the wisest writers and thinkers in history from time to time encourage us to purposefully consider the finite nature of our days on earth. ?You may leave this life at any moment,? Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, ?have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think.?
So here's the question: How do we do this? Short of visualizing the end of our days to persuade ourselves of the visceral truth of our own mortality, what else might we habitually do to concretize this perspective inside our minds? What can we do to train ourselves to internalize the notion that everyone we encounter is probably doing the best they can with what they have and instill into our hearts as our default setting that all of life is truly windfall?
Here are a couple of suggestions. First, something practical: attend memorial services. My father encouraged me to do this early on. ?If you think you should go,? he?d say, ?you should go.? It's good advice. And as I've gotten older, I see its value even more clearly. Attending funerals is perhaps the most effective way we have at hand to occasionally remind ourselves of the fleeting nature of our lives. Even beyond our responsibility to honor those who have passed and our Gospel obligation to comfort the grieving, memorial services?sometimes subtly and other times powerfully and emotionally?reliably expand and edify our souls. You might gain inspiration. You might feel convicted about something. But your perspective always changes in some way. You always learn. I've never regretted attending a single one. Such services productively swerve you out of your day-to-day routine, re-acquaint you with your own mortality, and direct your mind, often in compelling ways, to take all this into account going forward. God tends to broadcast aloud in these moments. Don't miss them.
The second suggestion is more poetic, yet even more easily put into daily practice, and I learned it from one of my closest friends, Mac, who recently lost his dad. His father was a banker, a community leader, head of a big, terrific family, and avid Texas Longhorn football fan. Mac's moving eulogy at the memorial service struck much the same conversational yet profound tone as the Flanagan essay?both beautifully sentimental and amusingly unsentimental at the same time. A few days after the service, I was speaking with Mac, and he reminded me that years before, his dad too had received a serious cancer diagnosis. After successful treatment, he?d asked his father how the experience had changed him. While I?m sure he provided considerably more detail to his son than just this, what Mac told me in remarkable shorthand gives us a ritual of how we might keep the fleeting nature of life constructively in mind, stay cognizant that we?re all kindred on this terrestrial ball, and remember that every day we have is entirely grace and windfall. ?Every morning for over twenty years,? Mac said, ?Dad got up and went outside. Every day. And he reached down, and he just touched the grass.?
We can all do that.
God?Help me to remember to touch the grass.