We had a visitor in our Patterns of Human Mating class this week, a 70-something year-old gay man named Gordon. One of our assignments is that students must speak, informally, with older people about sex, love, marriage, long-term relationships, etc., and what they’ve learned and what advice they had for young adults. This was inspired by a conversation I had a few years ago with an 83 year-old woman named Evelyn, which I found enlightening. Other than age, we weren’t looking for people from any specific demographic, or people with any orientation. We just wanted to listen to whatever wisdom and experience is out there.
We asked around to find people to speak with, and found Gordon through a local organization that works with older adults. He kindly shared some of his life story, the progress he’s seen on acceptance on LGBT people over the course of his life, and we had a nice discussion for about 25 minutes. He then stayed for the rest of the class to hear the lecture. He even asked a few questions during the lecture, and asked if I could email him some of the studies we discussed in the class.
“Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.”
― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
“Ain’t it enough to live by the ways of the world,
To be part of the picture, whatever its worth.
Throw your arms round each other, and love one another.
For it’s only one life that we got, and ain’t it enough?”
Oliver Sacks’ essay on learning that, at age 81, he has terminal cancer is one of the most beautiful things I have read. I hope that one day I can confront my own mortality with such perspective and dignity. Life is still beautiful.
There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
A few years ago, I attended a conference on war and health in Seattle, and one of the keynote speakers was Chris Hedges, a former journalist who had covered several conflicts around the world. After he finished his presentation, the floor was opened for questions. I’ve since forgotten much of his speech and nearly all of the Q&A session, except for the final question. Someone in the audience asked him how his life had been affected by what he had seen, and how he readjusted to a life of relative comfort in the US.
At that point, he sighed and said that one of his young children had asked him something similar when he was preparing her lunch. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like “how can you be happy here making me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when you’ve seen so many big, important things like war around the world?” And he replied that “it’s because I’ve seen so many wars that I know how important the little things are, like making sandwiches” (again, I’m paraphrasing).
“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”
— Thích Nhất Hạnh
This is from Sasha Sagan, daughter of Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan, remembering a time from her childhood when she began to understand mortality. Her parents told her:
“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way.
My parents taught me that even though it’s not forever — because it’s not forever — being alive is a profoundly beautiful thing for which each of us should feel deeply grateful. If we lived forever it would not be so amazing.”