Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mortality

Last night, we went to dinner with a few of our Israeli colleagues, enjoying one of the many excellent restaurants at the Tel Aviv port.  The conversation turned to Iran – but sideways, as usual, through a vein of humor. (It was something along the same lines as the bumper sticker I once saw that said “Sarah Palin in 2012 | The world’s going to end anyway.”)  It’s a strange thing, being in this place that is reduced to a series of really frightening headlines around most of the globe.  Tel Aviv is one of the most vibrant, progressive, alive cities I know – it’s parasurfers, gelato shops, world-class dining, and all-night dance parties.    And yet, the threat of war looms all the time.  Israelis themselves are somewhat desensitized to it in daily life.  Every parent has or will have children in the army.  Everyone my age has lived through war and served in the military.  Memorial Day in the US is about shopping; in Israel, it is the most solemn day of the year.  Our GM describes the time he lived in the Bay Area as kind of dull compared to the ever-present thrill of being surrounded by people who want to kill you.  So while no one is naïve about what could happen, there is also a sense that it has happened before, and will happen again, and you might as well get on with your life and make the most of it while you’re still alive.

I struggle with this premise a lot.  It sounds good to say that you should live every day as if it could be your last.  But chances are that it won’t  be your last.  And that creates a dilemma.  If I knew for certain that tomorrow would be my last day on Earth, for example, I certainly wouldn’t be here, seven thousand miles from my family; I would be at home, holding my kids until the very last moment.  But the odds are that I will live not only through this trip but also well past the day my mortgage payment is due, so I will probably need the paycheck I’m working towards.  And my kids would look at me funny if I held them tightly through a veil of tears, telling them over and over again that I loved them – they’d probably play along but secretly be wondering whether this might be an ideal time to ask for the iPad, seeing as Mom was being so nice.  If I knew there were no tomorrow, I sure wouldn’t bid the world farewell by doing laundry… but if tomorrow comes, I’m going to want clean underwear.  

So, on a daily basis, I’m not acting as if I could go any minute.  I plan, I postpone, I sow seeds that can only be harvested in the future.  But this creates a different dilemma: the sense that I can put things off on the assumption that the future will actually come.  Lately, I’ve been obsessed with defining my life’s purpose, and I am worried that the clock is ticking and I still haven’t figured it out.  I have a vision floating out there that someday, things will quiet down, and I will have time to do what I was put here to do; but honestly, the world is such a mess right now that I don’t know whether I should wait.  I look enviously at my cats, who seem to feel none of this struggle.  

Sunday morning, I went for a run through the city of Jaffa, a place that was inhabited 7,500 years BCE.  It’s my favorite route here.  At 7:00, it’s very quiet; just me and a few guys sweeping the streets.  I love being in a place that is so ancient.  It makes me feel insignificant – like I can get off this crusade for purpose and just live, because in the end, we are small, and we will be survived by that which preceded us.  I think it’s why so many are drawn to mountains and oceans: they remind us that the world doesn’t rest on our shoulders, and in our insignificance, we can finally relax.

I came back at night to some terrible news from my mother.  Her good friend’s son had been snorkeling that day when a motorboat hit and killed him.  His youngest son had been with him.  His wife and three other sons were on the beach.  He was my age.  He was not in a war zone; he was in Turks and Caicos on vacation.  In an instant, his family’s life went from a dream to their worst nightmare.

It is hard to think of his life as insignificant.  I felt heartbroken thinking of his four kids screaming for Daddy.  I don’t know where it left me in my search for purpose, or my level of comfort with not having found it.  I just knew I wished I were home.  

I won’t live every day as if it were my last.  But maybe I can try to love that way.  It is the one thing that no one can make up after you’re gone.  And whether you're in the Middle East or Caribbean paradise, you never know… you just never know.