On Truth, Personal Responsibility, Love, and the Face of God: Lessons from the film “Dead Man Walking”


(Warning: Contains spoilers!)

If you’re not familiar with the movie, “Dead Man Walking,” watch it. It’s an incredibly well-acted and beautifully written and moving film; a film that will likely linger with you (long) after it’s over.

In the film, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), befriends a death row inmate, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), who reaches out to her by mail initially under the auspices that he’s not guilty of the horrific crime he’s been sentenced to death for. But as she continues getting to know Poncelet and his story, she soon begins to suspect that what he’s told her about his part in the crime is not the truth. And so as the last minute appeals are denied one after another, Prejean’s task becomes one of helping to redeem Poncelet and help him to die well—that is, to die with dignity, with a clear conscience, with no hatred or lies in his heart.

It’s a beautiful film, with a message for all of us, meaning that even though most of us have done nothing even in the heinous ballpark of what Poncelet did, we all have our “sins”—meaning, bad, even wicked conscienceless hurtful things we’ve done to others in moments of weakness and fear, that we probably ought to own up to before we die/before it’s too late. Because the reality is we’re each dead men (and women) walking. We all owe a death; it’s the final installment or payment on being alive—and likely the costliest and most difficult installment to pay well.

And part of living a truly meaningful and dignified and decent life means taking responsibility for our actions. It means not get sucked into an easy out—an “easy out,” meaning, a path of lessor resistance, a path which curses the effect on us of our past actions and yet at the same time sows more seeds of future suffering. And the easiest easy out is to get sucked into continuing to blame others or society or even our upbringing for the quality of our lives. As Bruno Bettleheim put it: “Blaming others or society is the child’s privilege, but if an adult continues to abnegate responsibility it is yet another step in personal disintegration and destruction.” To live a meaningful and dignified and worthy life, we have to begin living more consciously, more honestly and self-awarely, stop making so many excuses for ourselves, and begin facing the reality that all along we have been making choices—and that oftentimes the choice was to blame others and pretend like we didn’t have a choice or make a choice. And this is perhaps the most damning lie that we can tell ourselves—that it wasn’t possible for us to choose otherwise—because it absolutely brings to an immediate halt and undercuts any attempts at personal growth and changing one’s life for the better. As Stephen Covey put it, “Until a person can say deeply and honestly, ‘I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,’ that person cannot say, ‘I choose otherwise’” (from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”). More to the point, that person cannot change and truly grow and heal.

From: “Dead Man Walking“—this is my slight rewrite of the movie, I have done so in order to help translate the film to print

The scene: Near the end of the movie, a cell on death row, about 28 hours before Poncelet’s scheduled execution the following night. Poncelet and Prejean are alone in the cell.

Prejean: Let’s talk about what happened. Let’s talk about that night.

Poncelet: I don’t want to talk about that.

Why?

Because I’m pissed off! I’m pissed at the kids for being parked. I’m pissed at myself for letting Vitello (his accomplice) get them kids. . . . And I’m pissed at their parents for coming to see me die. . . . Oh l got a thing or two I want to say to the Percys and the Delacroixs.

You want your last words in this life to be words of hatred?

Clyde Percy wants to inject me himself!

Well, think about it, Matthew; think of how angry he must be. He’s never gonna see his daughter again. He’s never gonna hold her, love her, laugh with her. You have robbed these parents. They have nothing in their lives anymore but sorrow and unimaginable pain; no joy. And that is what you gave them. . . . So why were you in the woods?

I told you, I was stoned!

Don’t blame the drugs, Matthew. You had been harassing couples for months before this happened. So what was it?

What do you mean?

Did you look up to Vitello? Did you think he was cool? Did you want to impress him?

I don’t know.

You could have walked away.

He woulda went psycho on me.

Don’t blame him! . . . Matthew, you blame him, the government, drugs, blacks, the Percys, the Delacroixs. You blame the kids for being there. But what about you?—what about Matthew Poncelet? Where’s he in this story? What?—is he just a victim?

I ain’t no victim.

But you’re not taking responsibility, Matthew. Time’s ticking away. You’ve got death breathing down your neck and you’re still playing your little con-man games and looking for loopholes.

The scene: It’s the next day, the same cell on death row, only hours before Poncelet’s scheduled midnight execution. Poncelet is alone in his cell, Prejean enters. She looks at him, Poncelet looks different, and he is looking at Prejean differently.

Prejean: What, Matt? What is it?

Poncelet: (thoughtful) Earlier today when I was saying my goodbyes, my mama kept saying, ”It was that damn Vitello.” She always regrets that I got involved with him. But I didn’t want her thinking that—that it was him and not me. Something you said got me thinking, Sister. . . . I could’ve walked away. . . . But I didn’t. I didn’t. . . .. I wasn’t a victim; I was a fucking chicken. He (Vitello) was older than me and tough as hell. And I was just boozing up and trying to be as tough as him. But I couldn’t. He was bad; but I didn’t have the guts to stand up to him. I told my mama this—that I was yellow. But she kept saying, ”It wasn’t you, Matt. It wasn’t you, Matt. It wasn’t you.”

Your mama loves you, Matt.

But it was me, Sister. It was me. I had a choice. I made a choice. You know that boy—

Walter?

Yes, Walter— 

What? What Matthew?

Well I killed him. I shot him in the back of the head. I shot him like he was nothing. I shot him because I wanted to prove how tough I was. I shot him because I was too scared to stand up for myself. I shot him because I was a coward. I treated him—Walter—like he was nothing at all because I was a coward.

Oh Matthew. . . . And Hope? 

No, ma’am.

No? . . . Did you rape her?

Yes, ma’am, I did. I did horrible things to those kids.

Then you’re taking responsibility, Matthew?—for both of their deaths?

Yes, ma’am. (Sobbing) Yes ma’am, I do. (Sobbing) . . . . When the lights dimmed last night, I kneeled, and I prayed for them kids and their families. I ain’t never done that before. I felt so alone. I feel so bad for them. How could I have done what I did? Why did I have to do it? Why? . . .

Oh, Matthew. There are spaces of sorrow that only God can touch. You did a terrible thing, Matt, a terrible, hideous thing. You ended two young innocent lives and you robbed those two families of their children. You treated those kids—those human beings—like they were disposable to you, you treated them like they were here for you to do what you wanted with them. But they weren’t. . . . And now you’re facing the truth, Matthew, and doing so has set you free—the truth has made you free. You’ve known the truth all along, but now you’re admitting it, facing it finally, not lying any more about it. And because you’re doing this and taking responsibility for your actions, Matthew, there’s real dignity in this: You have a dignity now. And nobody can take that from you. You are a son of God, Matthew Poncelet.

Nobody ever called me no son of God before, Sister. I’ve been called a son of you-know-what lots of times, but never no son of God. . . . l just hope my death can give them parents some relief.

Maybe the best thing you can give to the Percys and the Delacroixs is this is to let them know this remorse and regret that you feel—to feel their pain, and not hide from their anger—the anger that you brought into their lives. You can give them that, Matthew, and a wish for their peace.

If I could, I would do things differently; I wouldn’t do what I did. I’d be stronger, you know. I never had no real love myself. Never loved a woman or anybody else. I would want to love. It figures I’d have to die to find love.

Matthew, I want the last thing you see in this world to be a face of love. So you look at me when they do this thing. You look at me. And I’ll be the face of love for you.

Yes, ma’am. Thank you, for loving me.

Thank you, Matthew.

 

To truly love another person is to see the face of God.” – Victor Hugo, “Les Miserables

.

Confession—a truly heartfelt and thorough confession—what in recovery circles is referred to as making a full and searching and fearless moral inventory—is the first step to real personal growth and true mental health and healing. The truth will set us free. But only if we face it and confess it fully. To confess the truth partially is to still to lie, and lying will not set us free.  But admitting the truth, the full truth, and nothing but the truth, and taking personal responsibility—ceasing to grumble and blame society, others, our upbringing, et cetera, but instead focusing on ourselves and the choices we’ve made and are making, becoming conscious of these choices instead of denying them—is what will set us free.

Yes, to be sure, external things as well as the past certainly exert an influence on us and have-wired us limbically and even intellectually a certain way. But they do not get the last word in who we are—they do not get the last word in who we become.

We get the last word in who we become if—if—we take responsibility for ourselves, for our choices, and face the (potentially terrifying) truth about how we’ve lived, what we’ve done, the choices we’ve made, and who we’ve become. —And the worse and less courageously we’ve lived, the more terrifying the truth will be for us. As John wrote in his Gospel (paraphrasing): “The light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were wicked. For everyone who does evil things hates the light and is ashamed, and so in his shame does not come towards the light, but instead hides from the light so that his or her deeds may not be exposed. But whoever lives truthfully comes to the light so that his deeds may be seen clearly. . . . ” (John 3:19-21)

We’re all dead men and women walking. We all owe a death. The problem is that unlike Poncelet, for most of us the hour of our death is unknown. And that uncertainty as to when—not if, but when—is what gives us the wiggle room that allows us to live badly, to lose perspective and live and make choices as if life goes on forever (or at least a lot longer than it likely will). Castaneda said that death is the only wise advisor we have. I would revise that statement and say that death is one of only two wise advisors we have—the other being God or God’s point of view—what’s best in us, what does our conscience say, asking honestly what is the Loving and truly mature and courageous thing to do. If we learn how to consult both of these advisors more and more in life—and more and more when we’re making decisions—especially potentially big decisions, then we’ll be crafting a habit that will serve us well. We will be learning to begin with the end in mind—the end, meaning death and what will be important to us at that moment. And thus we will be living and making decisions more truthfully—and honorably.

 

Let death and banishment and rejection and misfortune and every other thing that appears dreadful and that you’d rather ignore, be before your eyes daily, but most of all death, and you will never again think anything petty or cowardly or mean, nor will you ever desire anything discursive or extravagant again.” —Epictetus

.

You know, Westmoreland made all of us officers write our own obituaries during Tet, when we thought The Cong were gonna end it all right there. And, once we clued into the fact that life is finite, the thought of losing it didn’t scare us anymore. The end comes no matter what, the only thing that matters is how do you wanna go out, on your feet or on your knees? I bring that lesson to this job. I act, knowing that someday this job will end, no matter what. You should do the same.” – from the motion picture “The Kingdom

 

There’s no way out of this alive. No one gets out of here alive. We all have to die. And all of those we love and depend on also will die. And we must not let the uncertainty as to when we and others will die provide us with the wiggle room to live and love badly, pettily, to use others, to run from ourselves and our fears, to lie, to live and love like we’re not dead men walking and like we and those we love will never die. Because once we lose perspective and start living a life unmindful of the end—a life of denial, avoidance, dishonesty—we become shameful creatures and we leave the door open in ourselves for evil, for real inhumanity and abuse and cruelty—and all in the name of preserving our comfort and not having to face our fears and be overwhelmed by them—by what will one day unavoidably have the upper hand on us. Carpe diem—seizing the day—isn’t about living a frenzied life, ramping up our living in denial and living more hedonistically and superficially. Just the opposite, it’s about facing reality, beginning with the end in mind, and not living superficially, not living as a coward, not tranquilizing ourselves with what is trivial and will not mean anything to us as we’re dying or when we get the cancer diagnosis or one of our children has died. Carpe diem—living deeply and sucking the marrow out of life—means living very consciously, deliberately, mindfully, with gratitude, appreciation, kindness, openness, honesty, depth, substance. It means not worrying so damn much about our own comfort. It means getting out of the shallows and into the depths where life reveals its secrets (Rilke).

Confession—his level of honesty and perspective—is a huge part of being reborn, of a metanoia—of a profound change of heart and mind and life direction—or, if you don’t want it to sound so biblical or religious, then just call it growing up and being a better human being.

Confession—confessing our sins, really feeling the pain in others that we’ve put there because of what we’ve done, making our amends, correcting the past, sincerely desiring to exchange places with those we’ve hurt (meaning genuinely being willing to take the bullet or the hit, instead of making someone else take it for us)—is a sign of real growth, real psychological and spiritual health and strength. And it’s a sign that we’re not lost—that we haven’t lost perspective, but instead have found it, that we’re finally putting ourselves on some really truly solid ground, instead of the fleeting groundlessness of living in denial and living superficially.

Advertisements

Your Personal Philosophy—the Examined or Unexamined Life in Action


Your Personal Philosophy—the Examined or Unexamined Life in Action

I suppose I could have also titled this post: “The Truth—will it set you free or will it cause you to break cleanly with reality and go bat-shit crazy?”

We all have a personal philosophy. Our personal philosophy is simply our approach to life—our way of approaching life and dealing with what we encounter. There are really only two ways to approach life: either we approach life—all facets of it—in a thoughtful and examined way; or we opt not to. —Meaning, at some point we unconsciously decide that thinking will open up too many painful doors and bring up too many terrifying and unanswerable questions, and so we decide to limit that part of ourselves (the thinking and conscious part) and we try instead to lose ourselves in work, play, relationships, Facebook, et cetera. Essentially, it’s the “any port in the storm” approach to life—a life of hiding out from what we fear most—the emotions that most frighten us—terror, panic, anxiety, shame, inadequacy—and the thoughts and experiences/situations that will likely trigger these emotions—these intense and overwhelming emotions.

And sadly, such an approach limits our humane-ness as well as our growth and development. It is the ultimate act of self-limiting—to opt to curb one’s awareness and one’s thinking and instead lead a timid and an unexamined life and hide from what most frightens us.

Yet it’s what almost all of us instinctively and naturally do. It’s our default. A default that’s been bred into us through thousands upon thousands of years of natural selection. Self-preservation—the will to survive—is our default. And nothing helps us more in this than automatically seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Thus our personal life philosophies have been instinctively built around avoiding and retreating suffering and difficulty and discomfort and anything that might cause us mental anguish or unsettle us, and chasing after good vibes and good feelings. . . .

But . . . there tends to be a problem with this approach to life . . .

“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”

― Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain”

There are certain sufferings that likely cannot be avoided—sickness, old age, loss of love, death. But in our youthful exuberance, ignorance, naiveté, and feelings of omnipotence, we think we actually can play hide and seek with the dark parts of life and avoid suffering—at least for a very long time into the future.

And so part of doing so involves automatically limiting our awareness and our thinking—not exposing ourselves to thoughts and ideas that might cause us to suffer. Who in the spring or summer of their life wants to think about the inevitable coming winter? Who wants to think about death and loss and sickness and old age and poverty and the pains and sufferings of one’s upbringing?

It’s easier to just sweep all of that stuff under the psychological carpeting and out of our conscious mind, and keep the party bus approach to life rolling.

We’re all afraid. That’s a given.

And certain amount of suffering is inevitable; it’s unavoidable; it’s part and parcel of being alive and living.

Thus our dilemma.

Either we approach our lives very honestly, in fear and trembling, and with eyes and mind wide open; or we do so with eyes and mind frightened and quickly closing and shutting down, always squinting, always nervous and apprehensive about what they might see around the next bend or read in the next book or blog post.

In my early-teens through my early twenties I used to routinely avoid TV shows like “Cosmos” or anything that mentioned the Big Bang and the ultimate fate of the Universe. If the Universe began and ended like this, then what’s the point? Everything comes to naught. Why live? Why live for anything other than as much immediate and overwhelming pleasure and ego-gratification and enlargement as possible? Why not try to lose oneself in pleasure and the stream of life and try to lose oneself completely—after all, the alternative is too much to face, too much to bear? And as for God, where is there room for God in such cosmology? 13 or 14 billion years ago, the Universe blasted itself into existence, and millions and millions of years of evolution took place and have all come to this point—this point where I am alive, aware of myself, aware that I will die, aware that before me there was an eternity of nothingness, that before the beginning of the Universe there was what?—and that I will die, perhaps in a hideous or random way as will those around me, and then everything will fade to black, and there will be an eternity—an eternity upon eternities—after me; the Universe will turn cold and motionless, or it will perhaps collapse upon itself—and perhaps start again and everything will repeat itself exactly, again and again; or perhaps everything will be different the next time through. Or perhaps the Universe won’t start again, and me, my life—whatever I am, whatever I make of myself and my life—will be swallowed up and lost in the folds of all of this, just like everything and everyone else.

Those were the questions of my youth and young adulthood. And they still are, except they don’t fill me with me as much terror; things don’t seem as bleak and or grim. I still don’t hold out much hope for an afterlife—not that I wouldn’t relish being proven wrong.

I think that what’s changed for me—or in me—are two things. Firstly, I tolerate the questions better—I think that a bit of “desensitization” has taken place—not that I still am not occasionally filled with terror at all of the above and spin out in panic; I just don’t spin out as dramatically or for as long—or as easily. So a bit of desensitization has taken place. Plus, I’m 44; I’m “over the hill”—I’m likely past the halfway point in my life—and perhaps well past it. I’m less afraid across the board than I was 10 or 20 years ago. I’ve watched firsthand as my mom wasted away and died from melanoma a couple of years ago; I watched as my grandfather wasted away and died of old age and some age-related disease that I can’t recall the name of; I’ve had a woman who I thought was my best friend betray me; I’ve experienced other break-ups and losses and betrayals and disappointments in love. In other words, I’ve taken my fair share of dings and nicks and dents in life. One headlight. My nerve-endings and emotions are generally just not as sensitive and raw as they used to be—they’ve been broken in; I’ve been broken in. I just don’t get as surprised as often as I used to (not that I still can’t be surprised!) The blinders are largely off—I know how hideous and weak people can be and what they can do to another because I’ve been on the receiving end of this several times. I’ve watched people do to me and to others unconscionable horrible things—all in the name of illegitimately avoiding their own suffering—and things I was powerless to stop. Live long enough and honestly enough and that’s just the way it is—life does this to everyone—tries to break us each, or at the very least, it breaks our engine in. The question for us is: do we join in the decline of western civilization and start mistreating others because we have been mistreated and so pass on our pain onto others? Or do we take a stand against this way of life and try to metabolize and soak up some of the pain and misery in the world and make something decent of the suffering that is given us—do we try to make art, wisdom, something beautiful of it and or ourselves? Do we become one of life’s works of art—whether others appreciate it or not.

In my late teens and early twenties, I had no problem passing my pain onto others—I was running from myself, from life, from the big questions in life; I was afraid, weak, underdeveloped, out of shape psychologically, ill-equipped emotionally for life (not that I still may not be; just perhaps a bit less so, hopefully!). I had no problem hitting the bars, mistreating my body with cigarettes and alcohol and fast food, and looking to meet a woman who was mistreating herself similarly and see if she wanted to go home for the night and metabolize a little of our avoidance and stuffed down existential pain together. . . .

That’s a snapshot of me in my late teens and early twenties—just going along with the prevailing winds, doing whatever the other largely mindless, soulless, unthinking nitwits around me were doing. Basically I was leading an unexamined life; I wasting my mind—at least trying to—and perhaps wasting my life.

And then I went through a very painful break-up and betrayal. And the best way I can describe it is that the pain of that experience—the pain of those months of my life (the summer of ’97)—was worse than the rest of the pain I had been running from. And those pains that summer turned out to be labor pains—or perhaps I turned them into labor pains. I’m not sure how to attribute it. Either way, I had a Jerry Maguire type birth of conscience and a different way or level of thinking and of seeing the world. Something clicked in my mind and I could see very clearly that I had been running from a lot of things in my life and that that running was all in vain; I saw myself very objectively, very clearly, and I saw very clearly how all of my previous ways of trying to deal with pain by not actually dealing with it but by passing it on to others and spreading my misery or emptiness or unhappiness around had rendered me as a pretty weak and cowardly little shell of a person.

I had unwittingly been participating in my own demise; I had unwittingly been making myself in many ways an emotional wimp.

But, during my twenties I had also done some things that would ultimately save me from all of this—save me from myself, from what’s worst and weakest in myself, and from living like a weak little nitwit who reactively tried to eschew everything difficult and uncomfortable and ultimately unavoidable in life from his plate.

One of the things I did was to go to college and get my degree—degrees actually. I got my degrees in two fields that interested me the most—philosophy and psychology; and I almost got a third degree in religion/religious studies.

In the course of my studies I took a course on Buddhism where I learned about a way of life where people actually (!) faced life and faced honestly what was unavoidable in life—sickness, old age, death, loss, parting.

I also took two English classes where I was required to keep a journal and write 5 or 10 handwritten pages a week (this was in the olden days!) on anything I wanted to write about. It was a habit I would return to frequently throughout my schooling and after I graduated—and I’m so thankful I did!

I also took a class on poetry—a class where we were forced to write a poem every few days if we wanted to pass the class—that was the seeding of another fortuitous habit/hobby!

I also started reading Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, and a little of Kierkegaard and Rilke (though I didn’t start really “reading” Rilke until I was in my late-30’s after another painful break-up/betrayal. All I really got from Rilke in my 20’s was that immortal line: “You must change your life.” I knew that for sure. That line hit me over the soul with a sledgehammer).

I also was trying to read M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled“—but by and large, the books that have impacted me the most were not books that I came across in college, but were books that I read after I graduated. Nevertheless, along the way, some seeds of conscience and intellectual and emotional honesty and courage and self-awareness were replanted and re-nurtured through some of what I was introduced to in the course of my studies in psychology and philosophy and a few of the teachers I had during those years.

And then everything that had been planted in me—or that I had helped plant in me—all came to fruition—into bloom—and how fortunately!—in the summer of ’97, in the midst of all of my inner turmoil and agony over the ending of a 3.5 year relationship.

In the midst of all of that pain, I read and wrote and thought voraciously—I read and wrote and thought for my very life! And after about 3 months of doing this—and getting very little sleep each night—something clicked for me. I had what the Buddhist’s term “a moment of satori“—or great insight and clarity—about myself, my life, life, and how flawed my up till then approach to life and difficulty and suffering had been. It was for me the psychological equivalent of what in Christianity is termed a “metanoia“—a deep paradigmatic shift, a radical figure-ground reversal, a complete change of heart and mind and life direction.

And since then I’ve found my soulmates—the books that have more than their fair share of tell it like it is / in your face truth—M. Scott Peck (anything by him); “How Could You Do That!?” “Ten Stupid things Women Do To Mess Up Their Lives”; “A Return to Love”; anything by Krishnamurti; Rilke, Rilke, Rilke, and more Rilke; “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”; C. S. Lewis—his essay and nonfiction books; Thoreau—especially his section on reading in “Walden”; Emerson; Kierkegaard; Jacob Needleman; Gurdjieff; James Hollis; David Schnarch; Murray Bowen; Maslow; “The Denial of Death” by Earnest Becker; Simone Weil; “The Little Prince”; Pema Chödrön; Chögyam Trungpa; the Buddha; The Gospel and First Epistle of John; the Old Testament Wisdom books; Montaigne; “The Nicomachean Ethics”; Roger Housden. And the list goes on.

Our lives are the way they are in large part—if not wholly—because of how we think / the way we think—about ourselves and our lives. Our lives bear witness to our thinking—as well as to our lack of thinking and thus our fears. What we are afraid of—what scares us, terrifies us, threatens us, stresses us out, might potentially undo us—we don’t think about—we don’t permit ourselves to think about.

But some of us having something in us that likes to play with this fire—with this fire of truth—that knows that we need to get a little bit closer to this fire and even get burned by it—perhaps even risk getting annihilated by it.

This fire—the fire of truth—is the only fire worth playing with. It’s the only thing that will really warm us. And it’s the only thing that will potentially save us—from ourselves, and from the sufferings inherent in life.

Philosophy—the real stuff, not the stuffy academic nonsense—is fundamentally about wisdom and creating the conditions that will allow for the transmission of wisdom. Meaning philosophy at best is about learning how to think—both logically/reasonably, and also humanely. It’s about learning to have the courage to ask and perhaps even to try to provisionally and tentatively and humbly even answer the big questions in life—why are we here? for how long? what happens after we die? why is there something rather than nothing? is there a God? and if so, what is he or she really like and what does he or she want out of me? how am I to live so that when I come to die (or when get a terminal diagnosis) I’m not filled with terror and fear, or I don’t look back on my life with regret, and realize that I have wasted my life out of fear and convention and servicing other’s expectations of me (just filling a role)?

Our lives are the way they are because of our personal philosophies—our beliefs and ideas about what is and is not worthwhile in this life, what will make us happy, and what we need to avoid or eschew in order to stay safe and content. And how thought-out and examined or unthought-out and unexamined these beliefs and ideas are.

Our lives are philosophy in action. Each of our lives is either the examined or unexamined life, the heroic and courageous or the avoidant and timid life in action. And thus as a whole or in parts it may well serve as a cautionary tale to the dangers or the excesses of one or the other way of life.

The Buddha said, “All we are is the result of what we think; with what we think we make a life.” Something along those lines.

There’s either the more or less examined life, or the more or less unexamined life; a life of learning and growth, or a life of fear and comfort and avoidance.

There’s really no neutrality in this.

There’s no avoiding this choice—try as some (or many) of us may.

Either we think and deal heroically with the pain that comes from thinking honestly and seeing life as it is; or we live thoughtlessly, forsaking thinking and the largest part of what makes us most fully human and potentially humane, and we try to pass as much of our fear and suffering and cowardice onto others and make them pay, in place of us, the cost of our living.

Enjoying Every Sandwich: Living Each Day as If It Were Your Last


Erin, over at Analyfe.com, wrote a review of the book “Enjoy Every Sandwich: Living Each Day as If It Were Your Last” by Lee Lipsenthal, on her blog—http://analyfe.com/2011/11/16/enjoy-every-sandwich-living-each-day-as-if-it-were-your-last/

From the publisher’s website (http://www.randomhouse.com/book/215689/enjoy-every-sandwich-by-lee-lipsenthal)—

This book is a culmination of what I’ve learned. I hope it will open the door for you to embrace your humanity, accept uncertainty, and live a life of gratitude. —from Enjoy Every Sandwich

As medical director of the famed Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Lee Lipsenthal helped thousands of patients struggling with disease to overcome their fears of pain and death and to embrace a more joyful way of living. In his own life, happily married and the proud father of two remarkable children, Lee was similarly committed to living his life fully and gratefully each day.

The power of those beliefs was tested in July 2009, when Lee was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. As Lee and his wife, Kathy, navigated his diagnosis, illness, and treatment, he discovered that he did not fear death, and that even as he was facing his own mortality, he felt more fully alive than ever before. In the bestselling tradition of Tuesdays with Morrie, told with humor and heart, and deeply inspiring, Enjoy Every Sandwich distills everything Lee learned about how we find meaning, purpose, and peace in our lives.

I wrote the following as a response on Erin’s blog—

Sounds like a very interesting book, Erin!  Right up my alley. 

The Dalai Lama wrote that he begins each day meditating on impermanence and our interconnectedness.  Covey discusses that “beginning with the end in mind” is one of the key seven habits of effective people because it helps us cut to the chase (and cut through our own bs) and start organizing our lives around what’s truly important and what’s ultimately going to matter to us.  Steve Jobs said in a 2005 commencement speech: “When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’  It made an impression on me.  So ever since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.  Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

To me it’s clear that the first key to living a more meaningful and eyes-wide-open life is facing our own mortality instead of denying it.  Which is no easy feat—we live in a death-deny culture teaming with all sorts of diversions to distract us and anesthetize us to our own and others’ mortality. 

The second key to living a more meaningful and examined life is moving past merely intellectualizing the knowledge of our own and others’ mortality and instead allowing ourselves to feel this always-possible future reality viscerally, emotionally, no (or at least little) differently than if we were in a doctor’s office and being told we (or a loved one) had cancer.  Which also is no easy feat!

Tomorrow I am going to the dermatologist’s office to have a mole on my forehead biopsied.  It may turn out to be nothing.  Or it may turn out to be something and my life will move in a dramatically different direction after tomorrow.

So, a personal question Erin, what did the book mean to you?  How did it change your life or give you pause to reconsider certain things you may or may not be doing now?

As for my own answer to your query—is today a good day to die?—I’ll let you know after tomorrow when it may be no mere intellectual exercise.

Namaste and thanks,

John

Ps. These are links to two of my blogs where I share some of my own (and others’) reflection on death and dying and living with passion and meaning.

https://fullcatastropheliving.wordpress.com/

http://aweektolive.wordpress.com/

Integrity, Honesty & Character


(A little calendar wisdom riffed on from Stephen R. Covey’s 2011 “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” calendar, months September and December)

Integrity includes but goes beyond honesty.

Honesty is telling the truth—in other words, conforming our words to reality.

But integrity is conforming reality to our words—in other words, keeping promises and commitments, and fulfilling expectations.  And to do this requires character—an integrated identity that is in alignment with fundamentally correct life principles, instead of identity diffusion (several contradictory and competing and revolving part-identities as opposed to a coherent unitary self).  Integrity requires a oneness primarily within oneself but also with life, truth, and correct fundamental life principles.

Integrity in an interdependent relationship or nexus of relationships is simply this: you treat everyone according to the same set of principles.

And as you do, people will come to trust you.

They may not at first appreciate the honest confrontational experiences that such integrity might generate.   Many people would prefer to take the course of least resistance  and belittle and blame and betray confidences, be dishonest, overpromise and or go back on their word, or gossip about others behind their back.  Confrontation generated by integrity takes courage, but in the long run people will trust and respect you if you are open and honest and transparent and understanding with them.