In the realm of journalism, the Second World War produced some genuine giants. Edward R. Murrow, William L. Shirer, Ernie Pyle, to name a few. But it also revealed some wonderful lesser jewels, who shone no less brightly because of their smaller spheres. Among these was Bill Mauldin.
Bill Mauldin was a junior NCO who drew inspired cartoons for Star and Stripes depicting two filthy, unshaven and cynically philosophical GI’s named Willie and Joe. This bedraggled pair slogged their way through the miserable Italian campaign, but their observations often achieved a sort of universality. In one of my favorites, Willie is sitting in their foxhole, reading a newspaper about how the biggest thing in the whole war, the D-Day invasion, had just happened in France. Joe’s response perfectly expressed humanity’s viewpoint: “The hell this ain’t the most important hole in the world. I’m in it!”
If you were to reduce the earth to 18 inches in diameter, the entire realm of life, from the highest atmosphere that the bugs reach to the lowest ocean penetration of cells, the result would be the thickness of a pencil lead. Some purists have taken to calling the “bio-sphere” the “bio-film.” On some godlike scale, our entire species might be treated as a minor, nearly invisible contaminant of the bio-film.
Intellectually, we know this. And we can walk out on a starry night and add some emotional appreciation of just how small we really are. So I suppose that it is only common sense that we should retain in our daily lives the reality that our comings and goings, triumphs and tragedies are really pretty small stuff.
“The hell this ain’t the most important hole in the world. I’m in it!”
It may not be commonsensical and it may not be objectively accurate and it may not be properly zen, but that is the way most of us feel about it. Our small doings, our living, and our dying all seem infinitely precious, infinitely tragic, and infinitely wonderful.
The sheer richness of it all could drive us crazy. To stay sane, we generate a certain sense of perspective based on a couple of curiously human measures.
First, there is distance from me: My child dying is a catastrophe. My neighbor’s child dying is a tragedy. Some Albanian child being blown up by a land mine is news.
Second, we employ our own weird, inverted scale of numbers. It was Josef Stalin who said, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” The more pain you add, the less we feel.
Of course, one of the nicest things about youth is the secure knowledge that we are going to live forever. And when we are very young, so are all of those near and dear to us. It is only as we age that most of us begin to experience death as a personal thing. That which was ignorable and only happened to someone else begins to get closer and more real.
First it is someone you know. “Gee! So-and-so died? But he was so young!” Then it is a parent, near relative, or a sibling. As it comes nearer, death goes from being something almost fictional to an incomprehensible threatening reality. Live long enough and you begin to get that duck-in-a-shooting-gallery feeling. So many around you have died that you feel like a very conspicuous target for the ancient enemy.
Death becomes a presence that demands your attention. One day it will be you. How will you deal with that? Will you wallow in the loss? Spend months in denial? Bargain? Will you ever attain that level of peace that is supposed to come with acceptance?
The problem, of course, is that most of us believe that we have to live our lives as if death will never come. We see death as the denial of life. We say that there is life or death. Death is the great enemy that must be fought until our last dying breath.
We know that this attitude can cause problems. Nobody embodies the “death is the enemy” attitude better than the medical profession. When we see some poor soul with tubes in every natural and unnatural orifice, being kept nominally “alive” by a machine, we can see the flaw all too clearly. “They would never have wanted that,” we say. “Death is a natural part of life. They should just let them die.”
So here is our conundrum. We know that we should begin to accept death earlier than we do, but we find it antithetical to life to do so. I think most of us believe that if we accepted our own death as a daily reality it would somehow suck the juice out of our lives. It might be wise, but we feel it would also be completely depressing.
Maybe. But maybe not.
One of my oldest friends is one of God’s true eccentrics. Pat has never tried to do things differently from other people. I doubt the idea would occur to her. She simply has a version of “common sense” that obeys her own unique set of rules. She can explain to you, quite clearly, why some course she has chosen is obvious and correct. There is a dizzy, brief moment when it looks that way to you, too. Then you shake your head, your brains settle back to their accustomed grooves and you resign yourself to simply accepting her wild originality.
People like that can be a blessing although they can also drive you crazy. They have the gift of looking at the world from a point of view denied to the rest of us. If we pay attention, we too have a chance of seeing our own reality in a completely new way.
Of course, it isn’t easy. When my eccentric friend Pat drops one of her bombs on me I find myself suddenly at a crossroads. The safe interpretation is there, but so are all kinds of new roads spreading out in fresh directions. Far too much to grasp in an instant. Once again I have to shake my brain cells back into place to go on.
But I do not let go of such comments; I carefully file them away. Every once in a while I take them back out and sort of roll them over. For I have learned that they are fertile. Each time they have something new to say to me.
For instance: Once upon a time we were talking on the phone about some old, inflexible, and downright crotchety neighbors of hers. Being who she was, Pat liked to invite them over for holiday dinners, where they inevitably complained about everything and got into childish arguments with one another. As I recall, this led to my commenting sadly about how getting old was a miserable thing.
Pat disagreed. She told me that she was really looking forward to getting old. Not, she carefully explained, the wise, mellow, sort of old age we like to imagine for ourselves, but the real kind where you are sore and cranky and forgetful. It struck her as being a rich part of life, full of new sensations and experiences.
Now before you dismiss this as obvious lunacy, let me argue that it is actually a very sensible view. Most of us spend the better part of our lives trying, futilely, not to age. We struggle to stay as nearly the same as we were in our twenties so we can continue doing the same things that we did then
Think about it. Is it really such a worthwhile goal to want to be able to endlessly repeat things we have already done? And does it make sense to dedicate ourselves to what we know is going to be a losing proposition? And the result? How many of us end up keeping a careful and depressing count of each loss of resiliency, speed, and youth?
Surely it makes more sense, knowing we are going to change, to train ourselves to look forward to each change with anticipation. At least we will not be cultivating an inevitable disappointment.
Mind you, I haven’t managed this philosophical beatitude myself. I’m pretty solidly of the count-each-loss mindset. But because of Pat I now recognize its essential stupidity.
In that same conversation she said something else provocatively contrary. She said that she was also actively looking forward to dying. Not being dead, but the actual process of dying. Since I had hardly digested her previous comment, I found this lump extra hard to swallow.
“Yes,” she went on, as if talking to herself. “I think it must be a little like climaxing. It’s all about learning to let go.”