Saturday, January 20, 2007

Nobody gets out of here alive

Thirty-five years ago or so, I got into a discussion with my cousin Cecelia about whether or not a person who had the talent to become, say, an exceptional brain surgeon also had a responsibility to pursue that calling. Did they owe it to themself and the rest of us to fulfill that potential, or would it be okay to turn their back on that potential and live a minimalist, self-sufficient life doing whatever the heck they wanted to do?

Cecelia argued in favor of each person being obliged to live up to their potential, for the benefit of all. I argued that just because you COULD do marvelous things with the talents you'd been given, you did not HAVE to develop your talents and put them to use for the common good. If you thought that you could be happier living the life of a hermit or a bum, then you should go for it.

I was an atheist at the time we had that discussion. Later on, after coming back to the Church, I developed an understanding of vocation but I never re-visited the question Cecelia and I had discussed.

As I approach my retirement after 27 years at the University, I am thinking again about that question. Life is hard. Death is inevitable. We all have gifts and talents. But vanity of vanities, all is vanity; in the end we pass on barely leaving a footprint in the sands of time.

What's it all about, Alfie?

Every Catholic baby boomer remembers the Baltimore catechism's first lesson:

Q: Why did God make me?
A: God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.

A good deal of the interior difficulties I have experienced during my recuperation from surgery has to do with the realization of how inevitable and how close in time (relatively speaking) is my own death. While I have always been able to see the intrinsic value of the lives of those that I love, it is a different matter when it comes to perceiving the intrinsic value of my own life.

I'm feeling a bit like Zelig in that Woody Allen movie. I can blend into any environment. And just as easily, I can eliminate myself and fade into oblivion.

I was praying the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary today and my meditation kept coming back to Jesus on the brink of death. As St. Paul says, we preach Christ crucified, and what a long, strange trip it is to Calvary. A long, strange trip that we all must make.

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