Then We Will Know How to Live

As the year passes away, it's a good time to remember that our lives are no less transient.

Consider the well-known passage from Psalm 90:
The days of our life are threescore and ten years,
Or perhaps four-score, if we are strong;
Even then their span is only toil and trouble,
They are soon gone, and we fly away.
Threescore and ten: this is the Biblically allotted lifespan (Methusaleh and other pre-Abraham characters notwithstanding). Thus British poet, A. E. Housman (1859-1936), at the young age of 20, looked forward to an estimated 50 more years.
Now, of my three score years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
If we would celebrate the fullness of all of life, we will view with relief and gratitude that the separate identity that ego so ardently clings to does not have countless ages. What is ours to do is only this brief span: our three score years and ten, more or less. Our mortality reminded Housman that we have only this moment. He chose, therefore, to walk about the woodlands, to be present to the beauty that is right now.

Louise Erdrich (b. 1954) said:
Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart's position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won't ever come by such a bargain again.
Remembering death, keeping it always in mind, makes us more present to life.

“What a puzzle it is,” as Mary Oliver (b. 1935) said, “that such brevity . . . makes the world so full, so good.”

Scottish novelist, Dame Muriel Spark (1918-2006), wrote:
If I had to live my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might was well live on the whites of eggs.
We know that "this too shall pass." This transience of all things is so clear, so undeniable, so obvious. If you publicly declare, “All things are temporary,” no one will argue with you. It’s a platitude, not profound, something we all know.

What would it be like to hear those words -- "all things are temporary" -- and hear them as revelatory? While we all know that all things are temporary, we don’t act like we know it. We keep going after achievements: if it’s not a house or a car, it's a job, or a promotion, or a contract, or a publication or a grant. Or we go after a prospective partner and hope to get married, and then we go after the vicarious achievement of having our kids achieve.

If "a belief" is, as American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) said, "a habit of action," then the habits of our actions suggest that, whatever we may say, we believe in permanence. We go after things with a desperate graspiness that says louder than words that whatever it is we're pursuing is real, valuable, permanent, and not just one more thing that arises, hangs out for a little while, then passes away. What would it be like live the truth of impermanence rather than merely know it?

Because all things are temporary, and constantly changing, then death is constantly occurring. The you that you were last year, or yesterday, or 5 minutes ago, has ceased to be: that person has died.

The original Star Trek TV show in the 1960s introduced us to an imaginary technology called a "transporter beam." "Beam me up, Scottie," became a familiar part of our culture. How does the transporter work? Supposedly, it takes your molecules apart and reassembles the molecules down on the planet surface: water molecule here, protein molecule there, and so on. This is done with literally fantastic rapidity. So, OK, now, think about this. If we had a device that could do that, then there’s no reason it wouldn’t also be able to take the pattern of you and assemble all the molecules for you twice. It could make two of you, or three, or four, or a thousand.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, in the episode "Second Chances" originally aired in 1993 May, that's just what happens. In the episode, we learn that eight years previously then-Lieutenant Riker, while serving on the starship Potemkin had "beamed" down to a planet. While beaming back up, some fluke space phenomenon, undetected at the time, had split the transporter beam. The split beam creates two Rikers: one appears on the Potemkin and proceeds with the career that leads to promotion to Commander and transfer to the Enterprise; the other rematerializes on the planet below where he manages to survive the next years outside of Federation contact. Eight years later, the Enterprise visits that planet and discovers the Riker that was left behind. Geordi Laforge investigates the Potemkin logs and pieces together the explanation. He concludes that both Rikers are equally real, for "both were materialized from a complete pattern."

So, if that’s what the transporter is doing -- following a pattern to make a “you” -- then isn’t the transporter beam, when it works in the normal way, killing you? It kills you in one place, and then makes a replica of you somewhere else.

Suppose I were to make an exact and perfect replica of you. Suppose I then I said, "Look, here’s a replica that will live on, so is it OK to kill you now?" Would you agree that it was OK? Of course, with a transporter beam, the replica is made a few seconds after you’ve been killed. But if the fact that I have made a replica of you doesn’t make it OK to kill you, then how could the fact that I’m going to make a replica of you make it OK to kill you?

Those are interesting philosophical questions, which I will not here explore. I mention this hypothetical Star Trek technology to call attention to a not-at-all-hypothetical fact of our lives: through the technology of merely being alive, we are continually being killed and replaced by replicas of ourselves. At every moment, you are killed and replaced with a replica that has most of your memories, most of your skills and habits, looks mostly like you, etc. The replica is not exactly the same because all these aspects of you are, after all, constantly changing. To be alive is to change, and change means the death of what was.

I often hear that death is a normal and natural part of life. Part? No. Death is the whole of life, the constant fact of every moment.

Every instant is another death. It is also true that there will come an instant not followed by a replacement replica. One day, the succession of replicas stops.

What shall we do about that?

Others have seen this intricate linkage -- a linkage that amounts to identity -- between life and death. They have experienced the liberation that comes with thoroughgoing awareness of death and impermanence. Grasping the fullness of death brings us to the fullness of life. German Philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) found:
If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself.
Centuries earlier, French essayist Montaigne (1533-1592) urged:
Let us deprive death of its strangeness. Let us frequent it; let us get used to it; Let us have nothing more often in mind than death . . . We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom.
In that freedom that comes from constant awareness of death, we finally dissolve those boundaries we construct between self and “other.” Dwelling there we realize the beauty, wonder, and oneness of all things. By looking squarely at death and embracing it, we learn how to live. As American Buddhist Larry Rosenberg (b. 1932) put it:
We know in our heads that we will die. But we have to know it in our hearts. We have to let this fact penetrate our bones. Then we will know how to live. To do that, we need to be able to look at the fact of death with steadiness. We can’t just glance at it casually. [Living in the Light of Death, 2000, p. 82.]
Finally, in Judith Lief's words:
The best preparation is working with our state of mind now rather than thinking about exotic things we might do later when we are looking death in the eyes. It is better to learn to relate to death now, when we still have the strength and ability. In that way, when we face difficult circumstances, or at the time of death, we can rely on what we already know. [Making Friends with Death, 2001, p. 26.]
I think it helps us "relate to death now," to keep in mind that life is constituted by death. Maybe the transporter beam called Time will reconstitute your pattern in the next moment, and maybe it won't. Either way, the being you experience as yourself this second is gone the next second. Why wrap so much anxiety around whether or not a very-nearly-identical replica will supersede you? Why have any anxiety whatsoever about that?

When all that anxiety is cleared away, seen through, recognized as stemming from delusion and dropped, then, indeed, we will know how to live.


Christmas Message

"Scrooge." "Grinch." The very words are wrinkly, shriveled, hard-edged – like the fictional characters they name. Grinch. Scrooge. The words and the characters are lonely, disconnected from community and nature, wrapped up in their forlorn pursuits of security and undisturbed quiet. They stand, or imagine they do, alone – alienated from the very Earth on which they stand.

I’m also thinking about what happens to Scrooge and Grinch. They who were asleep to the free treasures around them have an awakening experience. They wake up to a spirit of generosity.

Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning, astonished that he hasn’t missed it. He is “fluttered and glowing. . . . laughing and crying in the same breath.” Alone in his room he cries out:
“I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody. A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo there! Whoop! Hallo!”
He opens his window, puts his head out, calls to a boy below in the street, tells him to run to the poulterer's and have the biggest turkey at the shop delivered to Bob Cratchit’s. Scrooge has awakened to generosity. He is laughing, and shouting ‘Merry Christmas’ in the street. He’s giving large contributions to charity. People think he's gone mad -- and a kind of divine madness it is. As Dickens tells it:
“He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure.  He had never dreamed that any walk -- that anything -- could give him so much happiness.”
Scrooge has awakened indeed, and he is swept up in a crazy, joyous energy.

The Grinch, for his part, experiences, we can infer, dramatic physical bodily sensations with his awakening. His chest is so full it feels it would burst. It feels to him as though his heart itself is growing three sizes. With his awakening, he wants to give:
“And the minute his heart didn’t feel quite so tight, He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light. And he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast! And he – he himself, the Grinch – carved the roast beast.”
So I think about Scrooge and Grinch. And I remember that for most of the history of Christmas, there weren’t gifts. Gift-giving was not a part of Christmas. When some of the early Puritans in New England began exchanging a small token of regard, the church authorities scowled and discouraged it.

The spirit of generosity may sleep for a millennium or two, but it must awaken eventually.

Maybe there’s something about this winter season of long and cold nights that pulls at us with a tug that can be resisted for a long time but not forever – calls to us to respond with generosity of heart.

Or maybe there is something about the teachings of that young prophet from Nazareth that eventually, after many generations, compels us to give. “The kingdom of God is within you,” he said. (Or did he say “among you”? New Testament Greek has only one word where English has two: “within” and “among.” So we are left with the delightful ambiguity of whether our full and whole greatness and joy is centered within each of us individually or whether it blooms forth from community – among us -- when we gather together. Both, beloveds! Surely both!)

Or maybe it’s the story we keep re-telling about that prophet’s birth, about love being made flesh and dwelling among us. Maybe that’s what finally directs us into practices of giving.

For Scrooge and the Grinch, a dramatic awakening happens and it manifests in giving. The rest of us learn as best we can from their experience and from such examples, in life or in story, as we encounter.

The 1988 movie, Scrooged, puts the Scrooge story in a modern setting. Bill Murray plays Frank Cross (another wonderfully hard-edged-sounding name, less wrinkly but sharper), the mean, lonely, self-absorbed president of a TV network. In the course of the film, Cross is brought to an awakening, and, here again we see the manic ebullience that bursts forth when a heart that’s been long encrusted first breaks open. Cross walks onto the set where a live production of "A Christmas Carol" is being broadcast, and gives a wild, impassioned speech to the cast, crew, and everyone watching on TV.
“Christmas Eve: it’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year we are the people that we always hoped we would be. It’s a miracle, it’s really a sort of a miracle because it happens every Christmas Eve. And if you waste that miracle, you’re gonna burn for it – I know what I’m talking about. You have to do something, you have to take a chance, you do have to get involved. There are people that are having, having trouble making their miracle happen. There are people that don’t have enough to eat -- people that are cold. You can go out and say hello to these people. You can take an old blanket out of the closet and say, ‘here,’ You can make ‘em a sandwich and say, ‘Oh, by the way, HERE!’ I get it now. And if you give, then you, then it can happen, then the miracle can happen to you. It’s not just the poor and the hungry – it’s everybody who’s gotta have this miracle. And it can happen tonight for all you. If you believe in this spirit thing, you, then the miracle’ll happen and then you’ll want it to happen again tomorrow. You won’t be one of these bastards who says ‘Christmas is once a year and it’s a fraud.’ It’s not! It can happen every day, you’ve just gotta want that feeling. And if you like it and you want it, you’ll get greedy for it. You’ll want it every day of your life, and it can happen to you. I believe in it now. I believe it’s going to happen to me now. I’m ready for it. Ah. It’s great. It’s a good feeling. It’s really better than I’ve felt in a long time.”
The monologue above begins 5:53 into this clip:

Have you ever felt an imperative of giving of such clarity and ecstasy? You might have. Christmas can happen every day – a life of generosity and giving can be a part of all our days and years. But that kind of crazy energy must necessarily level out. That manic peak can’t be maintained. It’s not that the joy or the generosity has to go away or fade, just that it takes on a quality of abiding peace. For Scrooge, Dickens says, for the rest of his life “it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any many alive possessed the knowledge.” He always ever-after had the spirit of giving, but, if the fictional character is to be true to life, Scrooge must have settled into a calm lovingkindness in contrast to his  fluttery and giddy first day (or first week or first several monthes) after the ghosts visited. The Bill Murray character in Scrooged must eventually chill out a bit.

It’s like first love. When we first fall in romantic love the blood is fired with hormones and endorphins and adrenaline, and we can’t think of anything but the beloved, can’t sleep, can’t concentrate. That passion feels great. It doesn’t last, and that’s a good thing because even greater is the sustained and sustaining ongoing and slow ever-deepening love that exists between a couple, long married, simply enjoying together the morning newspaper and cups of coffee.

Are you at one of those ecstatic peaks? Have you been there and have moved through it? Have you settled down into a constant and abiding, peaceful and calm Christmas spirit that just rolls like a river: coursing unspectacularly through your life, and through you to those around you?

Or are you waiting, not sure whether to believe in what might happen?

Wherever you might be, you don’t have to sit around waiting for ghosts to show up in the night. Just give.

Maybe you don’t fully comprehend what that’s about – you don’t have to. If waking up doesn’t come to you as a sudden startling grace, then let it come gradually. Just give.

If you’re not convinced of the miraculous power of generosity, that’s OK. Fake it. Fake it ‘till you make it. Just give, and the miracle happens.

Howard Thurman has written:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
Scrooge had an ecstatic transformation. For him, it followed from visions of ghosts in the night. For others, it might accompany singing angels, or a clear star illuminating the interconnection and holiness of all things. As wonderful and transformative as such experiences can be, what really matters is coming down from that mountain peak to engage in the year-round daily "work of Christmas." It takes sustained equanimity and abiding compassion for the long haul to do that work, day after day with enduring love: finding those lost, healing those broken, feeding those hungry. An episode of hysterical joy at the aching beauty of each moment sometimes -- not always -- permanently changes a person. Scrooge, Dickens tells us, was among those for whom such an episode did effect a permanent change. He settled, it seems, into an abiding joy in a life of doing "the work of Christmas." Not all who have had such episodes get there -- and some people get there without any sudden profound awakening. Some people awaken very gradually and find one day that, although they cannot say when it happened exactly, peace, wisdom, and compassion shifted from "occasional visitor" to "frequent visitor" to "resident" qualities of experience, action, being. Such qualities increasingly visit and finally move in with hosts who simply do "the work of Christmas" day in and day out, as best they can, over the course of many years. The slow awakenings don't make for as riveting a story as the sudden transformations of Scrooge and Grinch, but the beauty and grace of the reshaped lives is as complete.


Repealing "Don't Ask Don't Tell"

Moving and important words from our Vice-President and President today.

You can read the remarks here:


Or watch the video:


I'm very happy about this development -- even though it is tinged with just a hint of ambivalence. The ambivalence most comes to the fore, in my mind, when the President said:
"As one special operations warfighter said . . . .'We have a gay guy in the unit.  He’s big, he’s mean, he kills lots of bad guys.'  (Laughter.) 'No one cared that he was gay.'  (Laughter.) And I think that sums up perfectly the situation. (Applause.)"
Yes, this is a good day.  Yes, it is an important step toward justice, fairness, consideration, and cooperation.

An even better day will be the day that we stop dividing humans into "good guys" and "bad guys."An even better day will be the day we stop imagining that killing lots of anybody is a commendable thing.

The real "dawn of eternal peace" to which Biden (quoting Eishenhower) refers will come when we don't have militaries at all: when neither gay men nor lesbians nor straight men nor straight women serve -- openly or otherwise -- in the armed forces.

"Force can protect in emergency," said Eisenhower, re-echoed by Biden. Yes, it can. But real peace, just as Eisenhower went on to say, requires justice, and, as Eisenhower did not go on to say, real justice requires all of us to develop the skillful means ("upaya," as the Buddhists say) for tending with care and concern to all human needs so that those "emergencies" that require violent self-protection never arise.

Some part of human aggression -- I don't know how large or small a part -- does seem connected with ultimately unhealthy notions about masculinity and sex roles and sexuality. Insofar as we now allow straight women, gay men, and lesbians to fight next to the straight men, maybe those old unhealthy notions about masculinity, etc., are eroding. And with that erosion, maybe we are becoming a people less eager to fight wars. That would be nice.

Is allowing gays to serve openly in state-sanctioned violence a step toward fairness? Yes. Is it a step toward eventually ending such violence? I don't know, but I would like to hope so.

I would dearly love to hope so.