The O! in Obit
I have a thing for obit headlines. You know: "a visionary ad man", "culprit in California fraud", "led postal strike." With compression that makes Haiku or Twitter encyclopedic, obit writers sum up a whole life. All the years, all the meals, all the worries and joy, all the credit card bills, subway rides and mortgage payments, everything condenses to 3 or 4 words. "President of Sampadoria football club", "horn player and activist", "an expert in team dynamics." This is sixty, eighty, ninety years chopped up and hashed out. What devil in those boiled down details?
Our lives are fluid, rivers that flow and flow without cease through so much scenery and time, rising and spilling, calm and fiery and always going. Yet the obit stops them in a single freeze frame. That's how we get remembered. "Writer's writer" ..."helped build real estate empire" ..."defiant IRA bomber."
As I get perilously close to being obit content, I think plenty about summing it all up mainly because when I was young, like the teenage girl in the stage show, The Fantastiks, I fervently prayed: "Dear God, don't let me be normal." Now I find myself saying: "Dear God! I am not normal." So I read obits to find out how others handled their transitions. Was their life less of a slalom course?
Sometimes I feel like the Cheshire Cat saying: "Whooooo are you?" "Led Kent State lawsuit"... "Rabbi seeking peace"..."linebacker"... I wonder if a guy like the insurance company lawyer trying so hard these days to deny payment to a newly arrived Nepalese immigrant college student hit and seriously injured by a distracted truck driver always dreamed when he was a kid that he'd grow up to be a real m-f jerk. What a headline he deserves: "greedy, lying bastard." Actually, I know someone who so didn't want to be that, he left a very lucrative post Harvard position to become a near penniless Dharma teacher. What an obit he'll merit: "died joyfully without a doubt."
Of course most people pass without getting a headline because there's not much to distinguish them. Survivors are listed after their name and time of the funeral. That's sad. All the animals who died for their dinners, all the water used for wash and drink and spaghetti, all the oil torn from the Earth to keep them warm while they watched television or made more people to take up more room and resources. I wonder if they ever wondered why they were here using up so many irreplaceable, precious things. I wonder if they held out a helping hand or just put their hand out to help themselves. What did they value most? What did they do all day long, watch or run the human race?
We don't have to do much. Sometimes it's just a woman who raises a child who becomes an adult who benefits many others. That's what she contributed and it was plenty. Think of Mama Sotomayor or Barack Obama's Kansas grandmother. Sometimes it's a musician or meditator whose insight calmed and guided others to higher ground.
The first thing Dharma teaches is that human life is precious, a profound gift. We could have been born ants or sardines or bacteria. Humans are such a minority of possible life forms--or used to be 2600 years ago at the time of the living Buddha, Dharma says the chance of being born one is about the same as the chance a sea turtle gets to pop up and put its head through a ring bobbing on the vast ocean surface. Based on the merit or good deeds of our past lives, we've had all the luck and won a lottery.
Still, being human is not an entitlement. It's like Social Security: something we've paid for and earned. Having a human body is supposed to indicate that before we got here, we did everything right, piling up amazingly positive karma that propelled us to this highest destiny. We should be proud of ourselves. And feel worthy. We are all champions. We've earned the right to be here.
Of course the second thing Dharma teaches is that we can't stop now to rest on our laurels. This life is not a paid vacation. It's not retirement. If we don't make use of it, work at it, we'll end up in big trouble next time around.
So this crack at getting it right again didn't come with guarantees or insurance packages for the future. Our lives are water bubbles that can burst at any moment. As the chant says, we have to make them meaningful right away. Tomorrow may only be a day away but tomorrow may never come. Who says it has to?
~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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