Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Judges' Table

It’s the million-dollar question, the thought that steals sleep and lurks at the edges of routine.  We buy books and hold yoga poses, repeat meditative mantras and jot down New Year resolutions.  It’s the fear that urges forgiveness and prompts deathbed amends. We want it more than fame and fortune, more than unbridled success and lavish second homes.  It’s a universal craving.  We all want to have lived a well-lived life.  But how to define a good life? It seems the criteria lies entirely in the grasp of the asker.  Are we judging our own days or the moments of a loved one we mourn? Are we comparing our minutes to his, our family to hers, our good deeds to Mother Theresa?

Maybe for some, wealth does equal happiness, and the joy from the finer things earns her a gold star.  For some, wealth becomes an avenue to better the world, the means to support charities and establish endowments ensuring blessings for generations to come.  There are those who pursue pleasure at any cost, cramming maximum bliss into our mortal eye blinks. They live a good life by avoiding pain, indulging the senses, soaking in happiness absent of the ponderings of long-term consequences.  If your belief is that this is all there is, this short earthly jaunt, then a life of laughter and chocolate ice cream might add up to a well-lived life.  But even if you set out for bliss and chase contentment round each bend, we all know that tears are inevitable.  Man cannot stand as an island without building a narrow sorrow, isolation bred from loneliness and small boxes of rules and solitude.  But loving carries side effects of loss and connection invokes heartache.  Plus, a single pleasure track might derail mine.  So who has the right of way? Whose train matters more?

And then there’s the philosophy of good deeds, humanitarian acts and toiling for causes that add up to a good life.  Perhaps a life well lived is the one that leaves the biggest mark and improves the widest sphere.  Much like beauty, it seems the winner lies in the eye of the beholder.  We are all our worst critic, blinded by regrets and failures, ‘should have’s’, ‘could have’s’ and ‘if only’.  I will always come up short in my own comparisons as I handpick greatness and then weep at the gaps between us.  And yet, who are we to judge?

 Was my best friend who died at 16 from cancer less worthy of the prize simply because her allotted days ran out? From my viewpoint, she had a well-lived life, spreading smiles and hope within hospital hallways, and extending friendship to a lost girl visiting after school.  Her hugs soothed souls and her generous love inspired those of us lucky to know her.  But from an objective criterion, she wasn’t famous or rich.  She didn’t cure cancer nor stop genocide.  And sometimes she was cranky, snapping at her parents and frustrated with her team of doctors. So what’s the answer?

Of all of those I’ve loved and lost, I arrive at the same conclusion.  They all mattered, all were successes, and all journeyed a well-lived life.  Perhaps I’m biased.  None of them show up in history books or earned medals of Honor.  But for me, the measure of a good life sprouts in casual seeds, small gestures of comfort, hands to hold and words of care.  My criteria roots on a small scale, listing company in tears and laughter over completed crossword puzzles.  I catalogue investments of time, notes of support, silent hugs and meaningful glances.  

There are souls that wander our personal hallways, simply loving presences, touching lives with gentle kindnesses, and improving the world one smile at a time.  We can’t know the lives we touch.  We stay blind to the impact of a simple ‘thank you’ or nonchalant words that stir a heart.  We walk along, trapping in our worries and comparisons, perceived failures set on a grand-scale stage, never knowing our own greatness, never relaxing into our well-lived lives as we come up short and reach for higher peaks.

It can’t be measured in moments or even days.  Any random slice of life will be lacking, absent of essential ingredients for a final well-lived decree.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  We need a wide-angle lens and cheerleaders to sing our own value.  I could drive myself crazy with higher strivings and ambitions of moral perfection.  I could set requirements of faith and success, wealth and birthing of a legacy.  I could compare myself to grandparents whose list of volunteer activities put me to share, or mold myself into a woman I think the world asks me to be.  I could define my life as worthless without children, nest eggs, or injustices not righted.  Or I could stop.

 Maybe it’s not for me to judge, or at least not yet.  Maybe I am not the best critic for my own hours.  Maybe it’s been a well-lived life because I smile at the checkout counter and snuggle with my puppy during chilly mornings.  Maybe my life matters because there are those who love me and those I adore.  Maybe I don’t get to judge because I can’t possibly know, as none of us can, how we better the world simply by being in it. 

It’s a million dollar question and I don’t have the answer.  But I do know this: we all could do better, act better, be better.  But of all of those I cherish, my life is made better because I know them.  And that awards their days with the title of a well-lived life. 

dedicated to benjamin dov...

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