I will never forget the last thing my ever-dignified Grandma Dolly said to me as she lay dying of cancer some years ago in California.
“Remember,” she said with a sharp edge of resentment and emphasis on the last word, “the government’s got you by the balls.”
And I thought she was a Democrat.
The completely uncharacteristic antipathy and audacity of this statement taught me that people are like icebergs — much of their essence hidden below the surface of the persona they present to the world. Or, my grandmother could have been exhibiting a symptom of senility, but she seemed “sharp as a tack,” as she liked to say, to the end.
As we approach the end of our lives, edging ever closer to unavoidable mortality, we tend to see things with more unpretentious clarity, more undisguised authenticity.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh
A quotation with a similar theme, from American author and aviation pioneer Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1906-2001), caught my eye today in my local newspaper. In her memoir “Gift from the Sea,” Lindbergh, the wife of fellow aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh, wrote:
“The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere. That is why so much of social life is exhausting; one is wearing a mask.”
Since she was in the twilight of her life, she ended the quote with this definitive sentence: “I have shed my mask.”
It’s like the proverbial wisdom that people, facing death, never say they wish they’d spent more time at the office.
For example, the ruthlessly aggressive, racist and mean Ty Cobb (1886-1961), a famously competitive professional baseball player with the
Detroit Tigers, did not say just before he died that he wished he had achieved a higher lifetime batting average or stole more bases during his long career.
He said, instead, “I wish I had made more friends.”
During his life, he was a man far more feared and loathed than befriended.
It’s important, I think, to value these authentic sentiments by people who are near to disappearing from existence and know it. They talk truth more than you or I.
But the late great astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1996) said a lot of wise things even long before he died far too young, including this very rational take on human existence:
“I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.”
I view life like Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who said:
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
But he viewed the term “miracle” in a figurative, materialist way, experiencing the natural universe not as a supernatural mystery to be worshipped but a glorious reality to be revealed.
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