The Pillars of a Life

(Originally written on May 3rd, 2011)

Have you ever wondered what it must be like to be on your deathbed? I mean really being on the verge of passing any day now--especially after living a long, full life. I would love to get to know someone who is nearing this end, and who knows this and has come to terms with this. Completely accepted it. Someone who has known long enough to have had time to reflect on things, formulate their thoughts and feelings. I want to pick this person's brain. I want to know their thoughts, feelings, emotions, joys, regrets, passions…

Something sort of like an emotion-driven autobiography as delivered on the verge of death. And that is not meant to sound morbid at all. Of course there would probably be tears and pain and sorrow, but only in a constructive way and amidst all of the glory and joy that should also be in abundance. It would all have its place--every single bit, every laugh and tear, no matter how tragic--because it happened.

What goes through the mind of someone on their deathbed? What do they consider to be the "pillars" of their life? For the purposes of this goal I have, someone I would like to "interview" should still be relatively healthy and good-spirited…just really really old. (I realize that expecting them to pass "any day now" is probably a bit overdramatic if the person is "relatively healthy and good-spirited." But you get the idea.)

Also worth noting is that this person shouldn't be a family member. I'm afraid they would have some sort of bias and would try to "protect" me from darker truths both for my sake and their own. Maybe not, but I could never be sure… and of course anybody else could be doing the same thing, with the best intentions even, I'm sure, but I think a relative would be much more likely to do this. Not to say that I wouldn't want to talk to a passing relative, but only to stress that for the specific purposes of the thoughts in this writing this should be avoided.

That being said (and I hope I've said it well enough to not offend or confuse or annoy or… whatever else people might be flipping their sanity over at this point--or at any later point) I would like to elaborate on the sorts of curiosities I long to satisfy with such a discussion with such a person in such a predicament.

I want to know, as absolutely completely as I possibly can, how this person looks back on the life they have lived, and in what combinations of thoughts and feelings they reflect on their experiences. What are their most cherished memories? I want to watch their expressions as they recall both pleasant and tragic memories. I am curious which there would be more of, which would be most vivid, and from what timeframes of their life most come from. Which memories, even after all this time, never faded at all? Which of them have become vague and distorted? What are their thoughts on why this is so for these particular cases? What made certain ones more "special" than others?

Probing deeper, what are this person's deepest regrets, and how did they cope with this over the years? What are their fondest joys, and what did they make of these over the years?

What, after all this time, have they come to realize mattered most of all? And at what point did they come to this realization? How often, if at all, did this realization change? I think these are some of the most important questions. I'd be on the edge of my seat as they think this through. Because here is a person that has simply lived through so much and, naturally, they have experienced so much and reflected on so much and compared so many things to so many other things. All in the due course of a life, even if they were not a particularly thoughtful and journalistic person.

They will have something interesting to say. More than likely many interesting somethings.

At what points did they get lost along the way, caught up in emotions or hectic lifestyles, or both, or something else? Which aspirations ended up being silly and/or childish efforts that only hindered their progress? Which aspirations propelled them through intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth most of all? Did they know each of these at the time, or only at some point later in life? These questions would reflect on the way they lived their life, and how they consider these lifestyles to have had major impacts in the grand scheme of it all. I expect that there would be an abundance of both proud, effective, successful lifestyles that they learned to capitalize on, and regretful, sloppy, problem-causing lifestyles that they never could quite abolish. I'm curious to know why they believe this was the case.

A large part of the motives for doing something like this would be to draw whatever parallels I might be able to see with my own life, while I'm still young enough to follow major new paths and lifestyles. In all likelihood I still have the vast majority of my life ahead of me, shrouded in mystery, overflowing with infinite potentials, and I am interested in any influence that could provide a significant benefit to my outlook and my understanding of the truer pursuits. I really really hope that I don't end up sounding like I'd be hoping to take away some sort of blueprint for how I expect to be able to live my own life, by capitalizing on whatever this person did right and avoiding whatever this person did wrong. That is entirely not the idea. My goal would be to develop an in-depth understanding of this person's life and their entire range of feelings about it, and then with any luck I'd be able to relate something of it to my own (as-yet limited) outlook and understanding. The idea would be to shed some extra light on aspects that I might have otherwise overlooked. And, of course, that's not to mention the simply profoundly interesting things I would hear from a person who has lived an utterly different life than I have so far. If I took nothing else away from such an experience, I would at least deeply appreciate the communication as a simple storytelling session.

Also, a third powerful benefit of such an experience would be, ideally, for the interviewee. This person would hopefully gain a better understanding of their own life, as well. Very possibly even more so than I. And that is a very encouraging thought.

I am, of course, assuming that some sort of filtering process has already occurred so that I have found someone who is genuinely interested in and more than happy to be speaking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth throughout.


What was the most beautiful thing this person ever saw? What was the most profound thought they ever thought? What were the most joyful and painful emotions they ever felt? What set each of these so far apart from the rest of the mish-mash? I would hope to get as detailed a background story on each of these as possible and, again, to see their expressions as they recall the most powerful of all their memories.

What were their most prized possessions, and what did each mean to them? What made them so precious? Where are they now?

What sorts of thoughts still occupy their mind? When they let their mind wander, or when it does so anyway, where does it go? How does this relate to their younger self? How recognizable do they think they are to the person they were 20, 30, 50+ years ago, and vice versa?

If they could live another 20 reasonably healthy years, would they? What feelings does this possibility stir? Or would they rather have died 10 or 20 years sooner, and if so, why? I want to know what they think of the idea that life should last as long as possible. If I could promise them another 50 reasonably healthy years, what then, and why? If their answer is no, then I would have a lot of brain-picking to do at this point.

How much has the world changed? Physically and socially? How much has their view of the world changed? How much influence do each of these changes have on each other? What are their opinions on the state of the world, and where things are headed?

Who were their best friends of all? What qualities made this so? Was it mutual? Did they remain friends all this time? What are the most cherished memories with each of them? Where are they now?

What do they think of love? How many times did they fall in love? How many times did they merely think they fell in love? If any of these ever ended, why do they believe this happened? What went wrong? Was it inevitable? Did they stay friends afterward? If any of these never ended, why do they believe this was? How does it feel after all this time? What sorts of emotions are still stirred up when they look at this person, or talk with them? At this point, after so much time has passed, how well do they think they really know this person? And how well do they think this person really knows them? What are the most precious memories with this person?

What advice do they have to give? Nothing generic, please!

Would this person do it all again, life in its entirety, start to finish, glory and tragedy, rather than end it for good? Why?

There are certain qualities that I believe any thoughtful person will have come to decide are the "most important." Not that every person is going to come to the same conclusions… no, no. But I can only imagine that each person has developed some of these more than others, or at least realized some as being more crucial and/or desirable in themselves and/or in others.

I regret to say, as of this writing, that I do not have these clearly defined for myself. I have my own thoughts, still in development, but I am definitely still working on it. (My regret is not that I am working on them, of course, but just that they are not yet fully developed). Again, I can only imagine that this is the same for my peers. But I can certainly point out a few things that I've come to respect, admire, and strive for above all else:

Perseverance is vitally important so that you can keep shooting for that which you desire. Difficulties and failures, while sometimes good evidence of a wrong pursuit, should be constructive learning experiences (even if they are good evidence of a wrong pursuit).

Honesty is crucial so that people will trust what you say and do, and they can rest assured that what you tell them is actually how you feel. This includes, to me, not only simply being honest in its literal sense but also telling people how you feel about something because they need to know. Honesty should not only come as a response to a question, but also as a response to a feeling that otherwise would not ever make itself known to anyone else. People cannot read each others' minds. Let's talk to each other. And be reasonable.

Integrity is sorely needed in more people, I find myself believing much of the time. Or maybe the problem isn't so much a lack of integrity, but a lack of the morals themselves that integrity -should- be upholding. People should do what they say they will do. It's just better like this, in every conceivable way. And it's not even difficult, if you're a good judge of your own character.

And, last but certainly not least, optimism is that all-powerful mindset that can do so much with so little. Sometimes believing that something good will come of something is the little nudge that was necessary to make something good come of something. There is a quote that I adore, and it goes something like this: "The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this to be true." (By, I believe, James Branch Cabell). What gets me is… we live in the world we live in. It is what it is. It is meaningless to "fear" that it is not "the best of all possible worlds." Sure, there is always something that can be improved upon, there are always people doing stupid and foolish things, there are always people dying unnecessarily and senseless violence destroying homes and countries, and countless other things that could be pointed out. But it doesn't matter how you twist it, from which direction you look at it all--it is still what it is. An optimist should not believe that things are beautiful and perfect and that any sort of improvement is unnecessary, but rather that the sorts of changes that are necessary are worth pursuing. The world is a beautiful place, and it can be made an ever-more beautiful place.

Especially if everybody adopted these pillars (and others I do not have the time or skill to address). Everyone has a foundation that their life is built upon… this is fundamental. And not easily expressed in words. But each person's life is there, it exists and it is utterly unique. It is built upon a foundation, perhaps not unlike a temple. And rising from this sturdy foundation are the primary pillars, the values with which the most important and all-encompassing actions, ideas and beliefs of each life are constructed. These values guide each person's actions in the most profound ways of all. People are going to have differing numbers of these pillars, of differing thicknesses and of differing materials. And upon these pillars, and supported by these pillars, the rest of the temple is built. And the continued success of this temple, its ability to weather the storms and overcome the tests of age, will be determined most of all by the craftsmanship and maintenance of these pillars.

If the pillars of a life ever come crashing down around you, do not turn and walk away. Even among the most complete wreckage there are still remnants, pieces of a whole that can be made better this time around. Take your time and, even if it is not your own, help to piece it back together.

Gahhhh. This is just the tip of an iceberg. I'd keep on going if I wasn't starting to bore even myself at this point. HA.


Posted by Eli Stanley | at 5:31 PM


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