On February 18, 2016, early in the morning, I was at home reading the newspaper, drinking a cup of strong coffee and experiencing my guilty pleasure of reading The Arts section of the New York Times. I was relaxing, hanging out. Then, at the beginning of an article about Paul Graham, a British photographer living in New York, I read a quote by Walker Evans that profoundly caught my attention:
It is the way to educate our eye, and more.
Die knowing something.
You are not here long.
When I first read those words by one of America’s greatest 20th-century photographers, especially his instructions to “stare,” my entire body was jolted. I became immediately more attentive and upright.
I was always taught, as most of us are, not to stare. We are taught to turn away from what is different; what is uncomfortable. “Don’t stare,” our parents told us repeatedly. (In fact, Walker Evans’s mother often scolded him for staring or pointing.)
In a similar vein, we don’t want to feel stress or anxiety. We don’t want to feel vulnerable. But this turning away can become a habit. It can become, without our knowing it, a way of being in the world that is numbing.
No more turning away.
When I first read these words over my morning coffee, I vowed to myself no more. No more turning away. I resolved to stare more, pry more, listen more; to be more alive. I wanted to know something, to really know something before my death.
I also wanted these feelings to not be limited by this individual mind and body but to extend to and embrace my wife and children and others I know and even those I don’t know, ever outward, without limitation or separation.
That morning at my kitchen table, I felt challenged by Evans to “die knowing something.”
We are not here only to make ourselves feel comfortable, safe, and stress-free. Of course, we want that easier state, and much of our consciousness yearns for it. But we often can’t locate that ease because of harsh personal circumstances or the conflicting needs of others, or because life is tremendously difficult at times.
In the broad arc of our life, this may be a good thing because we can learn a lot from that which makes us uncomfortable. We can grow in empathy if we try to get better at listening to others, and ourselves. This is something to know before dying.
What else is important to know? For starters here’s my list:
- We should know how to say hello and how to say good-bye, and appreciate the preciousness of these words when we say them.
- We should know how to truly meet our self and others, fully, right now.
- We should know how to be separate and connected at the same time.
- We should know that we matter and that every life matters.
- We should know how to love and how to open our heart to being loved.
- We should know not only that we are loved, but that ultimately we are love.
- We should know that we belong and that our belonging goes beyond this lifetime.
- We should know that we are not here long and that our lives, our actions, contribute to the world in large and infinitesimally small ways.
What’s on your list? What do you most value, what is most important, right now?