Live While You’re Dying:

“Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” Nobody gets out of this place alive, my friends. Sobering words? Sorry folks, it’s Lent. Now admittedly the title to this blog is a little startling. But then … it is Lent. And last week was its beginning with the observance of Ash Wednesday. “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” Now that is sobering! My friend and colleague Bill, who was preaching that day, reminded us all that “no one gets out of here alive!” And that is true. In fact, as someone has said somewhere, we begin to die on the day we are born.

Sorry folks. But it is Lent.

Now the interesting thing about my blogs and response to what goes out into the internet ether is that some topics receive many more hits than others. So if we were going to do what’s called a “meta-analysis” – looking statistically at findings from a large aggregate of studies all focusing on the same outcome – the two topics that have generated a great deal of attention overall had to do with gratitude – saying thanks to others before it’s too late – and forgiveness of wrongs that happen to all of us as we live out our days. And not to get into the science of it (and I did do that pretty thoroughly in my latest book, The Fiction of Our Lives: Creating Our Stories Over a Lifetime), but both of these positive acts – expressing gratitude and forgiving others and thus freeing ourselves from the weight of bitterness and resentment – have positive mental and physical health benefits. Both forgiving and thanking others are very good for your body and soul!

A blog or so back – the one about the effects of social media on your brain and on your social engagement with the world around you – I referenced some writing by Will Schwalbe. He’s the author of a new book titled Books for Living. Each chapter takes on a different topic inspired by a few books that Schwalbe cherishes. The first one he mentions (and continues to return to across all the chapters) is an old one by a Chinese writer by the name of Lin Yutang. Lin wrote a book called The Importance of Living (see the lead photo), and it turns out that this work continues to be a major source of inspiration for Schwalbe – even though the book was written in 1937. The book is still in print and I ordered a copy and have been reading it off and on for the past few weeks.

Lin draws from a broad Chinese approach to living life well, and contrasts that mindset with western striving, ambition, and struggle for competitive mastery of the world and all that’s in it. He deals with such topics as the “importance of loafing” and growing old gracefully, and under the heading entitled “The Enjoyment of Living” he extols the virtues of lying in bed, relaxing in one’s chair, conversing with friends, the joy of drinking and savoring wine, enjoying simple pleasures in nature, relishing travel and just “going about and seeing things.” He claims to be a “pagan” and, indeed, the book’s philosophy is essentially humanistic (even though according to a biographical sketch of him, he was raised as a Christian and returned to Christianity toward the end of his life).

Anyway, my point in mentioning him here is that among other things, Lent is a time to examine one’s life. This liturgical season, combined with the fact that I have now finished a trilogy of books that have been my love and labor these past fourteen years, has prompted me to stand back and ask that most important of all questions we humans can ask: “What now?” How shall I live out my life well … especially in these perilous times that we have entered?

Last month I traveled to Wintergreen – my favorite retreat place in the mountains west of here – and began to reflect on these larger-than-life questions. (The other photos below are scenes from this favorite hiding place of mine.) I don’t have a clear answer at this point, but I’m asking and searching. I have a strong sense, which I have been discussing with my spiritual director over the past couple of months, that I’m headed off in some new direction. I have a strong sense of being at some crossroads in my life and not sure about what lies ahead. But I do have a hunch that I’m being pulled toward something new.

In the meantime, again maybe because the times are truly scary – politically and socially – I do want to try every day to live well, to love better, and yes – to say thank you before it’s too late. Let me close with a few lines from a poem by Wendell Berry – one of my favorites that I just happened (providentially?) to run across this morning at the breakfast table. The title is “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing. …
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.1
Nobody gets out of this place alive, my friends. In the meantime, live well.

And do practice resurrection.

1 Found in Impastato, David (Ed.), Upholding Mystery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, p 160.