Mortality and wisdom. Or, I’ll take Nirvana with the points.

We all negotiate with life.

As one of  my literary mentors, David Quammen, elegantly wrote, “we do it invisibly, sometimes unconsciously, and alone, without benefit of collective bargaining. We come to terms.”

The stakes are as important as youth can conjure and that old age so grudgingly accepts.

We leave home. Enter the turnstile of relationships. Toss our graduation mortars into the sky. Commit to cubicles or factory lines. Buy and sell. Bring children into the world. Incubate regrets. Chase our dreams or let them chase us. Endure pains both real and imagined.  And along the way, we catch glimpses of our own mortality.

Mortality is only comprehensible (and barely even then) to those in great pain or in grave danger. Eden, that lush garden, may ultimately be the best metaphor we have for the unconsciousness of death.

I have a deep empathy for those who have been forced to face their own mortality.

Years ago, I was faced with a grim diagnosis. Grim enough to know that my life could have an expiration date of mere months.

Surprisingly, I did not crumble. I did not lament. I accepted it wearily because my wife was nearer to death than I was. If I was indeed surprised by joy, it was not in the knowledge that I would survive, but that I could survive such an awareness and still function with some degree of humor.

I can tell you what I learned on my mortality vacation.

While the knowledge of mortality comes like thunderbolt, comprehending it comes in drips and drabs.

My tolerance for virtually everything has grown but my tolerance for pettiness has plummeted.  Unfortunately, it is epidemic.  I have discovered that you can call people out on most everything except their pettiness.

The great gift of my experience is that I can now talk to anyone who is ill or dying.  It is like talking to someone you know.

The paradox of a brush with mortality is that it does not convey humility or grace equally.  It affects people in different ways.  For some it reorders priorities. For others, it fosters deep wells of anger.

But one of my favorite lessons came from a story told by the great psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp and his son Jon.  It was about the great jazz pianist Art Tatum.

“Relaxing between sets in a 52nd Street bar, Art Tatum (who was blind) sat a table nursing a beer.  A missionary wandered in from the street and came over to talk to him.

She said, “joining the flock is your only salvation.” Without answering, Tatum took another swig of beer.

“If you don’t join the flock, you will be a lost child of God,” she insisted. Art went on sipping his beer.

When the musician decided that the missionary had pestered him enough, he shrugged and answered softly:

“All God’s children are lost, but only a few can play the piano.”

The story is about appreciating was is personally unique about oneself.  It is about finding the singular among the multitudes.

It isn’t about self-centeredness, it’s about self-awareness.

Self-awareness isn’t for the faint of heart or mind.  It’s not Nirvana.  But it is the only sound choice that seems to truly resonate with notes as true as Art Tatum’s.

This article is dedicated to the late Randy Pausch and Johnston Willis Hospital in Richmond.

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