May 31, 2011

a measure of life

There existed an ongoing debate.  On one side, there was my brother who thought himself average.  Not bad, not great, just average.  He was comparing himself to people like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs who would be in that class of greatness.  He subscribed to my dad's joking assessment of "I shot for mediocrity and hit it."  On the other side was my sister-in-law.  She thought her husband above average and that everyone has some talents or abilities to put to use.  I myself found it a strange and interesting debate to watch, coming down on neither side.  Always a contrarian, at the time I found that the question of competence and self-worth didn't work very well for me but I could not quite put it into words.  That is until now (but they're not my words, they are somebody else's).  I was pondering the death of my brother and the ripples it sent out and came across this chapter from Steinbeck.  I could not have encountered this passage at a more ripe and appropriate time in my life.

     A child may ask, 'What is the world's story about?' And a grown man or woman may wonder, 'What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we're at it, what's the story about?'
     I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too -- in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite changes we might impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well -- or ill?
     Herodotus, in the Persian War, tells a story of how Croesus, the richest and most favoured King of his time, asked Solon the Athenian, a leading question. He would not have asked it if he had he not been worried about the answer. 'Who,' he asked, 'is the luckiest person in the world?' He must have been eaten with doubt, and hungry for reassurance. Solon told him of three lucky people in old times. And Croesus more than likely did not listen; so anxious was he about himself. And when Solon did not mention him, Croesus was forced to say, 'Do you consider me lucky?' Solon did not hesitate in his answer. 'How can I tell?' he said. 'You aren't dead yet.' And this answer must have haunted Croesus dismally as his luck disappeared, and his wealth and his kingdom. And as he was being burned on a tall fire, he may have thought of it and perhaps wished he had not asked or not been answered.
     And in our time, when a man dies -- if he has had wealth and influence, power and all the vestments that arouse envy, and after the living take stock of the dead man's property and his eminence and works and monuments -- the question is still there: Was his life good or was it evil? -- which is another way of putting Croesus's question. Envies are gone, and the measuring stick is: Was he loved or was he hated? Is his death felt as a loss or does a kind of joy come of it?
     I remember clearly the deaths of three men. One was the richest man of the century, who, having clawed his way to wealth through the souls and bodies of men, spent many years trying to buy back the love he had forfeited and by that process performed great service to the world and, perhaps, had much more than balanced the evils of his rise. I was on a ship when he died. The news was posted on the bulletin board, and nearly everyone received the news with pleasure. Several said 'Thank God that son of a bitch is dead.'
     Then there was a man, smart as Satan, who, lacking some perception of human dignity and knowing all too well every aspect of human weakness and wickedness, used his special knowledge to warp men, to buy men, to bribe and threaten and seduce until he found himself in a position of great power. He clothed his motives in the names of virtue, and I wondered if he ever knew that no gift will ever buy back a man's love when you have removed his self-love. A bribed man can only hate his briber. When this man died, the nation rang with praise, and just beneath, with gladness that he was dead.
     There was a third man, who perhaps made many errors in performance, but whose effective life was devoted to making men brave and dignified and good in a time when they were poor and frightened and when there were ugly forces loose in the world to ultilize their fears. This man was hated by the few. When he did, the people burst into tears in the streets and their minds wailed, 'What can we do now? How can we go on without him?'
     In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted shortcuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved, his life must be a failure to him, and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action we should remember our dying so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.

Average, below average, above average.  They don't matter to me.  I like Steinbeck's question better.  And I certainly know the answer as it pertains to my brother.


Abe said...

Amen to that. There certainly will be an ache in our hearts for the rest of our days. Dad

Anonymous said...

Such a powerful reminder to us all to reevaluate how we are living, to make sure we are placing value on the most worthy things. Praying comfort and strength for you and your family.