Things wear out. ‘‘Blue Boy,’’ the L.A. beach T-shirt is so threadbare from hundreds of washings that it can’t even be used as a car rag.
Then there’s the appliance failure of the month. The auto accident—that was the last thing we ever thought would appear on our Outlook-syncing smart phone calendar. (Where are all of our business contacts stored in there going to be eight years from now, anyway? Most of them weren’t around even three years ago.)
The damn car. The roof. The basement leaks. We need more insurance, just in case.
This inventory of stuff—our stuff—is often the object of our gratitude, but also the object of fear.
The problem with seeking gratitude through an inventory management exercise is that Mr. Rogers already taught us that Mr. All-Mine was all wrapped up in himself and made for a pretty small package.
Day after day it keeps coming to us that everything is temporary. We have it, and then we don’t. Our frantic race to keep what we have and acquire even more (in case we do lose something) is a descent into the valley of the shadow of death. It is a march in cadence to the chant, “If you’re not moving ahead, you’re falling behind!”
It is the gilded but unsustainable American Dream that can no longer serve as even a car towel.
Gratitude only occurs in the present moment.
It can’t be based on what we expect to have in the future, because that’s always going to be a maybe. Neither can it be fully based on the past, because if we are living in the past, we are missing the life before us in the present.
Gratitude is now—the Precious Present, if you will. It is an appreciation for the breath that enters our bodies and just as effortlessly leaves. It is an awareness that we are blessed to see what and who is around us now. It’s an appreciation for the birds we see and the sweeping sound of the wind passing through the trees. It is a thankfulness that the person before us now is one whom we love unconditionally. It is a sense that despite all that has transpired, in this moment, this one loves us anyway.
Gratitude is an understanding—an outlook on life. It’s the gradually expanding sense that there is an inner core within us—our soul—that is sacred. Our inner essence is holy, and no person or thing can ever take it away from us.
Gratefulness comes with an expanding awareness that our sacred core is inexorably and mystically connected to that same sacred soul within all others. We know this is true, even though most of the time our surrounding culture seems oblivious to our sacred interconnection.
Thankfulness flourishes when we are mindful of the same sacred connectedness we share with others. The real power of gratitude evokes unconditional love and acceptance. It exudes tolerance. It nurtures unquenchable curiosity and creativity. It engenders genuine love and a passion for equal justice for all.
Gratitude is in the real-time of the now. This is exactly why we live, work, and play. We feel we’ve been given a front row center seat to this vibrant and exciting richness called “life.” We are grateful by being fully alive and responsive in the present moment to all of life around us.
We find that we are rich beyond our wildest dreams because we are blessed to be authentically and meaningfully present with those around us.
With some, our time with them is only in passing moments. With others, we are with them for hours or even years. In a way, in the smallest acts of compassion, each of us are a part of the great reversal of fortunes that has threaded itself through history. We can heal the aching loneliness by being compassionately present with others. Doing so enables us to be contributing to something that is so much larger than ourselves. A compassionate presence is our purpose in life.
Philip Siddons dabbled in serving as a minister for 15 years, but migrated to using his communication skills in marketing, computerized publishing and videography. Along the way, he tried to respond to the people he served, whether they were paying customers seeking technology support, his readers, or parishioners. He thinks any life work requires the same sensitivity and commitment to create a meaningful presence with others. He holds a BA in literature, an MDiv, and then a DMin with his dissertation on feminist studies, and is the author of several books and short stories. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Linda. Visit his website or connect with him on his blog.
Back at the end of the 20th century when the human genome was sequenced and mapped, genetic and biological scientists had made amazing gains in understanding human life. They came to master elements of human growth and death through the DNA sequencing. This enabled us to dramatically increase our knowledge of the human longevity.
By 2030, medical science could implant a small biometric device that counts down how much time remains for a person to live. The device was composed of miniature DNA biofeedback transducers that are attached to the skin’s surface but connected to the subdural cellular DNA material of the body’s central nervous system. These plasma diodes provided a tiny digital readout on a skin-like mesh, showing the date when the individual will expire.
The medical research teams, that first configured them, called them “TTLs.” They derived the name from the computer term TTL meaning “Time To Live.” It was the hop limit on our computer mechanisms that measured the lifespan of data on our devices. The inventors initially thought the term would soon change but for some reason, it stuck.
Today, with TTLs, no fortune tellers or spiritual guides are needed. The embedded biometric chip indicates the exact date we will expire. You’ve got, say, exactly 17 years and 14 days left to live. For your sibling, it might be only 8 years and 27 days. Your time remaining shows on the digital readout on your skin’s surface at your clavicle (hidden just under your neckline).
By 2035, a TTL marketing plan rolled out and with it came an enormous uproar. The influential people from organized religious circles decried it a fraud. They did so until several of them, in their dying moments, created death-bed videos, admitting they were wrong.
At this point, a few entrepreneurs begin marketing software which was said to hack past the human biological countdown mechanism. In their product launch, they “guaranteed” an extended warranty on the lifespan limits, amounting to an additional five or more years of life. While these surgical implants initially cost above 3.2 million dollars for insertion, these life-extenders, when added to the TTL implants, would add years to life and modify the digital end dates. But these biological extender implants were cost prohibitive and were kept from the public knowledge. Most people could only watch and wait out the count-down on their TTL digital readings.
Within several months of the introduction of the TTL life-extender devices, the FTC exposed the fraud. These “life-extension” add-ons were only a programming modification of the logarithm of the TTL biometers, temporarily replacing the true expiration date for a later one.
After all the hoaxes and con artists were prosecuted, most people slowly began to adjust to the reality of knowing the true brevity of their lives.
Initially TTLs were a boom for the life insurance industry. Their sales soared or dipped according to the number of years remaining on people’s TTLs. Eventually, though, people stopped purchasing life insurance altogether and the industry collapsed.
Yet people are reluctant in accepting the inevitability of their death. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross correctly suggested in her 1969 landmark book On Death and Dying.
Most people tend to avoid looking at their TTL readout. It is only when their TTL date enters the last decade of their life span that they actively make some changes their lives.
As expected, many quit their careers and ventured into entirely new fields. Currently, on all corporate resignation forms there are check boxes to indicate “Approaching TTL Date” under the reason for quitting.
In their final decade, some divest themselves of unneeded wealth while others gamble their life’s savings away, just to see how much they can accumulate.
Some abuse drugs and alcohol and venture into dangerous experimental nihilistic lifestyles. Many self-medicate and prematurely die of liver failure. To whatever extent that people shorten their lives through neglect, their TTL is a constant and fixed date.
Many flock to religious institutions and groups, seeking meaning for their lives as they near life’s end. After all, NOW is the only meaningful event or tangible commodity that seems to matter. Most of the population is exclusively focused on who they are with and the quality of their relationships. Medical offices frequently have Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” as part of their standard office Mosaic® playlist.
In the last TTL decades, some engage in risk-taking. Some try skydiving, scuba diving or mountain climbing while others try to brave public speaking. Comedy clubs find that their ‘Open Mike’ sessions have hundreds signed up well in advance. One club in San Diego calls itself “I’m Dying Up Here” and broadcasts live performances.
With the deployment of TTLs, the travel industry has skyrocketed. Thousands seem to be fulfilling their ‘bucket list’ as they travel around the world. There is considerably less worry about traveling to suspected terrorist-affiliated countries. If your TTL still shows a number of years remaining, you book your travel, knowing that it won’t be during this coming trip that you expire.
TTL specialists typically give Ted talks about achieving excellence in focusing on the present moment. They’ll frequently admonish their audiences to direct compassion toward people in need – particularly those who struggle in coping with their coming endpoint.
News reports have turned from what a particular national leader is threatening other to more positive stories. The focus is more on the things the TTL people are doing in society to make a difference for the better. Awards and honorariums change to TTL behavior which brings society new methodologies of physical, social or spiritual healing. Award nominations are no longer based on box office revenues or the numbers of previous popular nominations.
For recent years, “TTL Specialists” have appeared on talk shows explaining their theories about overcoming the drawbacks of death. Doctoral theses, accompanying books and programs have proliferated on the subjects like “Managing Our Endpoint.” New social science fields teach why we should no longer be anxious or striving. Doing so, it is said, robs us of energy and focus on the being present with the remaining life that is before us. Those who used to say “have a blessed day” more commonly say “have a precious present.”
Faith-based organizations have migrated to new leadership of the laity. Almost as if they are ad-hoc gatherings of passengers on a sinking ship, organized religion has become characterized by open sharing sessions instead of liturgy and fixed readings. Life stories and philosophical learnings are regularly shared, giving speaking priority to those with quickly approaching TTL dates.
Out of those faith-based gatherings have emerged groups who called themselves “Visitors.” These are TTL-mindful people who simply visit people. They come to be with those in prison or they eat their lunches at the soup kitchens with the homeless and indigent. Members of “Visitor” groups share how they have divested themselves of their excess resources, sharing with the needy and compassionately treat others like brothers and sisters.
Young adults, with several decades remaining until their TTL date, stop aggressively competing in the office for the manager positions. Instead, they personally try to become the technical support and customer service center for all of their colleagues as well as their clients. They intentionally try to empower their colleagues around them by sharing their own talents and knowledge to help them excel in what they do. They display marvelous levels of creativity and innovation – just for the joy of it.
The TTL readout on our clavicle bone has been the start of new social consciousness that is transforming our society. The social change has begun because it is unmistakably clear that we can’t take things, money or power with us beyond our own TTL date.
For the most part, those within the final decade of their end date, tend to be uninterested in how much money or power or social influence they have. Instead, they tend to use their energy and resources in trying to make life somehow better for those who suffer. They spontaneously grab a hammer and nails and join the neighborhood kids in building a treehouse. They create a website for the folks in Brentwood who are trying to save the Coral Trees. They transport some wheelchair-bound seniors across the street from their rest home on Ocean Boulevard so they can see the exquisite Palisades Park view of the ocean. They buy them an ice cream cone when taking them to the Prominade.
In time, societies benefitting from the TTL readouts will continue to evolve. Segments of society will become known as the ‘Places of Paradise.’ They will be countries and cultures known by the current generations as the most favorable places in which to dwell. That is because no matter what is going on in the world, the people who are most conscious of their time to live will be more fully living in the present. They, and the communities they create, will be considered the most elevated humans ever to inhabit the earth.
Near large shopping centers, unneeded automobiles and previews of the available homes are on display. Anyone needing transportation or shelter is able to access these regional auction centers which distribute homes and cars donated by those with expiring TTLs. Homelessness has largely disappeared. Automobile and home prices have plunged.
In proximity to the auction centers are also so-called “Final Word Studios.” The studios are be staffed by volunteer camera crews and set designers to help people record their final parting words before their death. One franchise calling itself “Finally” has as many locations as McDonalds or Starbucks. These studios work with soon-to-expire people who want to create a final last-words video for their family, friends and posterity.
A person nearing their TTL date are able to sit down and work with the studio crew on creating their final video. People can say their last words from their favorite mountain top view, in the comfort of their own home or with almost any background set of props they can imagine.
They can write and choreograph the scene as they imagine but producers and writers are available to help with them with their script. Volunteer actors and actresses are also on hand to add to the production. They can do a final monologue or soliloquy. They can narrate pictures from their own family scrap books. They can read their poetry or curse at their Ex. They can get out whatever it is they wish to express, knowing that this is what they are leaving as their sign post of their life’s experiences. The only stipulation is that at the time of the taping, their TTL reading must be within the final few weeks before their expiration date.
This author’s TTL device now shows only hours remaining. So I simply wish you a precious present, hoping you live your remaining time with the fullest mindfulness of the incredible beauty that resides within you and those around you. Know that as your remaining time transpires, all that you are and have been has been part of the height of humankind’s universal beauty and celestial nobility. Good job.
“When I think back On all the crap I learned in high school It’s a wonder I can think at all And though my lack of education Hasn’t hurt me none I can read the writing on the wall”
from the Simon And Garfunkel 1973 song “Kodachrome”
Remember our priorities back in high school? The things we did to achieve recognition or our own self-worth? We’ve forgotten the very people we tried to please in order to fit in and be accepted.
By our thirties, we had grown out of our myopic high-school view of the world around us. It was like a now too-small suit that our parents had given us, in which we wouldn’t be caught dead. Those adolescent world views and judgments on large swaths of humanity. All these opinions and pronouncements are now gone – vanishing like someone else’s overheard burp from another room. It’s like the vicious radio talk show host who is forced into retirement after society, and all his former show’s sponsors, have moved on with other, more enlightened value systems.
What caused us to disregard what had once been at the center of our values?
Certainly it was exposure to new people and their broader perspectives in life. Likely, it was the pain of suffering – ours and theirs. The test of time ground down the inadequacies of oversimplified religion and ideologies.
It was, as Simon and Garfunkel’s song suggested, a transition of our minds from black and white to ‘those nice bright colors and their greens of summers, that make us think all the world’s a sunny day.’ Most of us emerged from a childhood where we are shown the world through a black and white lens. Perhaps out of our parent’s exhaustion and inadequate teacher credentialing, they did the best they could but wanted to keep it simple. They wanted to control things, or at least appear to be in control. To them, there were the good and the bad; the angels and the demons – “them” and “us.”
By the time we found ourselves in college, we were truly embarrassed to discover that we had actually believed what we had been told. Those millions of people, labeled as “Communists” by our parental units, turned out to just like us – only with a different political system. We discovered that everyone who is poor had not brought it upon themselves (from their lack of adapting, in a Social Darwinist scheme of ‘making it’).
To our dismay, the people and institutions, in whom and in which we were taught to trust for our religion and spirituality, were sometimes false idols themselves. They actually believed that they were the only ones right and everyone else was wrong and headed toward’ hell in a hand basket. ‘We discovered, in time, that the values we have been carrying around, as if precious and holy, were woefully threadbare – contradictory to the core teachings of all of the world’s wisdom traditions.
“Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing Let’s break out the booze and have a ball If that’s all there is”
Pebby Lee, 1969 ‘Is That All There Is?”
“Seargeant O’Leary is walking the beat. At night, he becomes a bartender.He works at Mr. Cacciatorre’s down on Sullivant Street, Across from the medical center, And he’s trading in his Chevy for a Cadillac, lac, lac, lac;You oughtta know by now, If he can’t drive with a broken back, At least he can polish the fenders. And it seems such a waste of time, If that’s what it’s all about… Momma, if that’s moving up, then I’m moving out.”
Billy Joel, 1977 ‘Movin’ Out’
“Disillusioned words like bullets bark As human gods aim for their mark Make everything from toy guns that spark To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark It’s easy to see without looking too far That not much is really sacred”
Bob Dylan’s 1965 It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
When we did begin to pull ourselves away from “all that crap we learned in high school,” we probably spent a number of years proclaiming what we don’t want for our lives. We expressed our dissatisfaction with the bigotry, prejudice and the painful social injustice. We did it with the clothing we wore, the language we used and our lifestyles. For some of us, we are lucky to be alive from risking drugs, alcohol and Californication. We were hell-bent on stating, with the canvas of our lives, that we were not our parents. We did this with our lifestyle, language and how we spend our time. We were defiantly not what we were raised to be. Or so we thought.
But we were busted. In the course of every day conversation, work-place exchanges and patterns of how we actually did things, we ended up becoming not that different than our parents. We found ourselves riddled and driven by the same fears as our parents. We overused the personal strengths that served us in the past in compensating for our fears. Our therapists complicated by our task list of schemas which get us caught up in some of the same unhealthy over-compensations as those who raised us. This is not your father’s Buick but it’s a Toyota .- so what? (See Tara Bennett-Goleman’s Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart)
Genetics? Probably not, except for our body types. But fear drives us to it. We write off people by the millions who approach life differently than us. We fear them and we fear change. We fear the kind of learning that forces us to set aside the old and pick up the new.
Consider how they used to catch monkeys for zoos. They carved out a coconut, attached a chain to one end of the coconut and the other end to a tree. Next, they put fruit in the coconut. When monkeys come along, they’d grab the fruit inside the coconut but refuse to unclench their fist that is holding the fruit inside. Unwilling to let go, they remained stuck to the coconut, chained to the tree.
In potential teaching moments, we are somewhat like the monkeys. We won’t let go of what we know and believe. That’s because it requires us to do the work of stopping and reflecting outside of our usual patterns of interpreting and compensating for our fears. It requires the work and energy to empathize with others – embracing their experiences and perspectives. We aggressively surround ourselves with people who look, act, dress, think and speak just like us. It’s fortunate we all don’t become hermits and wall ourselves away from society – refusing to talk with or read about anyone else. Some people, we guess, actually die of stubbornness and ignorance. We all have bouts with it.
If you enjoy developmental psychology, reflect on what we did with ourselves during our twenties. The school degrees. The striving for certifications. We climbed up rungs up the corporate ladder. The PTA meetings and how we drove our children to “succeed.” Like lemmings, we flocked along, trying to get our self-worth out of our careers or who we are married to, our money or power. We insured everything in sight so that we can replace anything.
But when do we stop talking about what we don’t want for our lives and pursue what we want? At what point, in the short linear path of our lives, do we get down to the business of pursuing what is truly most important to the core of our being?
What most important to our life?
What is the meaning of our life and where are we headed?
Who and where is our source of learning how to pursue a life of greater meaning?
Is there an app for that?
Maybe you’re in the process of discovering that now?
There is a lot of sadness around us. As Buddhists would point out, that’s because of the almost constant attempts to control, predict, grasp or fearfully run away from (or avoid) it all. They also teach that everything is temporary but not to the point of existential meaningless where nothing seems to be connected or to have meaning. It is to teach that whatever is, will ultimately change. “Where moth and rust corrupt” in the tradition of your early years of teaching.
To say that compassion is the only thing that is ‘permanent’ is probably better understood if it is said that when all things and people are gone, what seems to endure is compassion.
We remember a person’s character of caring and self-sacrificial love for others. That seems to stay with us when they are gone. It won’t be their temporary ownership of a Heisman trophy in the trophy shelf of the back room of the mansion (that the next mansion owner will likely try to sell to the highest bidder on EBay). Neither will it be the amount of political or financial power one accumulates during this relatively short lifespan.
Instead, what will endure will be the extent we are able to be truly present in the moment with others in such a way that we can fully accept and take them in a loving and unconditional way. It is in those moments we find avenues of reaching out and truly connecting, as kindred spirits, so that we can be agents of compassion and healing. As we form a community (which knows no boundaries), we join in something that is greater than ourselves and become more fully mindful that we are truly connected with all others and all living things.
We gain a keener sense of this in the practice of meditation. That’s because in this sedentary activity, we first learn to be fully present with ourselves. (How many people in your life are really there with you – who aren’t frantically eying their Blackberry or looking at their watch while they speak at you with no eye contact?) Learning to be fully present in the moment with ourselves yields learning to be fully present with others. We need then learn to be open and present with the Spirit Who created us.
Now all of that sounds like a Hallmark card on steroids but a lifestyle of being truly present in the moment, . . . being at home with yourself, others and your Source . . . brings you to compassion. I believe this life of compassionate mindfulness is at the core of all world religions that seem authentic.
These core teachings are present in all religions but are more, in my opinion, intentionally taught in Buddhism. If you’re interested in reading some more on this, take a look at Jack Cornfield’s The Wise Heart. ISBN: 978-0-553-80347-1 (0-553-80347-6)