A recent television commercial challenges the ideals of those preoccupied with the accumulation of ‘stuff’. The principal character speaks to us, the television audience. While he admits there is “a lot of good stuff out there”; in the end, he asks, will you concern yourself with whether you found a thinner TV, a smarter smart phone. He asks, “Will we look back and regret the things we didn’t buy or the places we didn’t go?” It’s a great question, posed in various forms for millennia. It arises naturally enough at some point in our development and has the effect of sharpening our focus on what is most important in life, or, more specifically our life. How many times have we heard the apocryphal tale of the man lying on his death bed whose lament exposes the irony of what we believe and how we live? “If only I had spent more time at work”?
I agree with the commercial’s willingness to recognize there’s a lot of good stuff out there. I like having the newest smart phone, and a great big thin TV is cool. Like most people, I have paid lip service to the old adage, ‘you can’t take it with you’, but it’s so hard to internalize this in a way that is reflected in my actions. For so much of my life it has been simply unimaginable to grasp the notion that one day I will be no more. But that has predictably changed. It seems very easy to imagine this now. The older I get the more aware I am the things I have collected are merely a temporary distraction from, or even a colossal act of denial that ‘stuff’ is mine only for a while. When Lynda and I lived in North Carolina we often attended auctions that featured great ‘stuff’ from the estates of well-to-do families at affordable prices. Beautiful antiques, fine art from the previous two centuries, spectacular furniture hand-crafted with such care and durability. During a break, the auctioneer and I chatted. I told him while I was glad several of my bids were successful; it was just a matter of time before he’d be auctioning it all off again. He laughed because he knew it was true. Everything is just for a while.
After my father’s death, the task of cleaning out the house was left to me and my siblings. In his home office was a wall displaying plaques, honors, and awards he collected over the last five or so years of his life. There were awards from the Cancer Society, the Rotary club, mementos honoring his support of Edwards Airforce Base, the Police Department. It was a curiosity because for most of his life he had detested such quaint activities. Only after he was laid off by a premier advertising agency in Los Angeles and the death of my mother did such activities take on greater importance to him. As we surveyed the room, we looked at one another all wondering the same thing. What are we going to do with these? It seemed so …so…wrong to simply throw them out. I found myself wishing he had taken them with him. Instead, we packed them up and took them home and even as I have moved from one place to another, they have come with me. I’m not entirely sure why- perhaps a denial of sorts that even the honors, awards, and recognition we receive are too only for a while.
It reminds me of an exchange between a proud, luscious-looking red apple perched on the end of an apple tree’s branch and a road apple lying in the dusty path below fresh from a passing horse. The red apple looked with disdain at the road apple, making unkind comments regarding its unseemly presence. The road apple, impervious to the apple’s harsh remarks, responds. “After a while, Madame Le Pomme. After a while.” Everything is only for a while and as the fable suggests should be held lightly. Like most things, the best course is one that appreciates how we must hold seemingly contradictory views about meaning in creative tension with one another. There is wisdom, for example, in the prayer that beseeches God to ‘make us deeply aware of the shortness and uncertainty of life…’ as well as our ambition to collect the ’stuff’ that outwardly demonstrates the value of our contributions. Embracing this tension both tempers personal inflation while revealing our commonality.
Lynda and I have talked about all this a lot. Somewhere along the line we concluded we would try to treasure experiences over ‘stuff’. Experiences possess the capacity to change us in ways that ‘stuff’ cannot. Again, I find myself in agreement with what is suggested by the commercial mentioned above. Will we regret the things we didn’t buy or the places we didn’t go? The places we don’t go is so much more than what we do or don’t do on vacations. Think of such places as the unfamiliar that evoke our curiosity but require courage to explore. While the explorers among us appear more confident and self-assured, what matters is not how you appear but what you do. To abandon the safety of an inert life and venture beyond the familiar is fundamentally about curiosity bolstered by courage. These ventures make us richer, wiser, more resilient, compassionate, and interesting persons as we are re-made by the experiences we encounter.
For Lynda and me, we have been fortunate enough to travel geographically to extraordinary places and experience worlds we had never known. Instead of touring the typical tourist sites, in Vietnam we spent an afternoon at a rural elementary school, taught the children songs, met their principal.
In Siem Reap, Cambodia we spent a day at the Children’s Hospital, visiting the young patients and their parents who slept on the floor next to their child’s bed. We were shown the outdoor kitchen and vegetable gardens in the large atrium of the hospital where parents of the hospitalized cooked meals for themselves and their kids while learning about nutrition.
In China, we went to a restaurant and suggested the waitress help us choose our dinner. A pigeon of some sort was served with its severed cooked head displayed in the center of the serving platter. (I offered that to my stepson).
In Bangkok, we spent the day and shared lunch with kids who had been trafficked or abandoned.
In Nepal we watched the ritualized goodbyes between a family and their deceased mother culminating in a procession to the funeral pyre where she was cremated.
Outside Jaipur, India, we discovered the eerily vacant Hanuman (Monkey) Temple whose paths we tentatively trod were lined by hundreds of very large and often aggressive rhesus-macaques monkeys. As we made our way among the ancient buildings, we heard chanting and climbed the stairs to a balcony from where it seemed to originate. A small group of Sadhu’s (ascetic holy men) chanting the Vedas allowed us to observe.
I have camped my way from the east coast to the west coast multiple times, met wonderful people, and experienced the beauty and diversity of this country.
In the undeveloped areas surrounding Tijuana, the poor homestead among the barren, dusty hills by the thousands. They construct their one-roomed homes from scavenged pieces of plywood and tarpaper. I was invited to visit Maria de Jesus’ home to discuss the baptism of her newborn son, William. I made my way to her home precariously perched on a steep hillside. Greeted by Maria, I was invited inside. She was dressed for company in a white frilly party dress that stood in stark contrast to the unlit room, a few throw rugs scattered on the dirt floor. She smiled and handed me her son. I held William looked around the small room- a bed, a bunson burner to cook, a cooler with ice to keep things cold. Water was delivered by the water truck that filled a couple of barrels in front of the home for bathing and cooking. William was bathed in a steel tub outside. A wire had been jerry-rigged to ‘borrow’ power from utility lines above to play a radio. I visited regularly for many months, found the courage to accept invitations to lunch in places like Maria’s throughout the Colonia.
I volunteered at a residential Hospice in North Carolina for a year after retiring. People asked me, “How can you do that?” I always responded that it was a privilege to spend time with the dying because the wisdom and insights offered by those who really understood that it is all just for a while were pure and unfettered by concerns about what others might think.
These are some of the places that lifted me out of the familiar and placed me in the center of worlds entirely foreign to me. These were formative experiences for me but may not be for others. The regrets one might have for the places they didn’t go is highly personal. Everyone needs to personally consider the places they have not been and make their own calculation about curiosity, courage, and the potential for regret.
WH Auden, in his Christmas Oratorio, “For the Time Being” wrote of how the courage to go to those unfamiliar places was, for him a spiritual matter.
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
My intention is not to prescribe or even suggest those places you may look back on and regret not going to. Rather, my hope is to nudge us beyond parochial world views and open ourselves to visit wherever that “land of unlikeness” is for us. If you can find the courage to go, be sure “you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures”.