How To Make The Most of Your Life: The Old Man and The Three Young Men

W Aractingi

My meditation streak hit day 64 today. Without putting too much pressure on myself, I’m hoping to keep up my regular sitting until I hit 100 days. The last time I sustained such a streak was after my father died. Sitting regularly helped me breathe in the face of mortality, my father’s and my own (fewer people ahead of me in line, as if there is a proper order).

Meditating on one’s death is a common practice in Buddhism. A mantra might be, I could die today. I don’t actually meditate on death often and when I do, I feel like I’m a fraud. Most days, I still don’t think I’m going to die that day, even as I’m saying the mantraAnd sometimes I’m having simultaneous thoughts that are exceedingly mundane (as I mentioned inThe Interior Design Benefits of Meditation).

Then this happens. The other day my mind was a whirligig when I sat down on my cushion. So, I picked a short, guided meditation from the app. I didn’t trust my mind not to sprint in the other direction if I tried just setting the timer. I settled in as instructed, then my guide said, in that hallmark, slow-cadenced, quiet assurance tone, “You are completely safe.” Tears rolled down my cheeks. Why? Because I suddenly felt how shaky safety was. Because even if I was safe, there were way too many people who weren’t safe. Life is precious (well, really the poet Mary Oliver was right, “wild and precious”).

What do we do with our one life? How do we choose what’s best, so as not to waste our days?

Here’s a suggestion from the 17thcentury.

An octogenarian was planting.

Maybe you can still build, but planting at your age?! Said three neighbourhood teens.

Surely the old man was getting dotty, the adolescents thought.

They continued: In the name of the gods, I ask you, what will you enjoy of the fruits of your labour? Unless you live as long as a biblical patriarch, what’s the point of spending your time taking care of a future that isn’t made for you? Now is when you should be thinking about your past sins. The time is gone for future hopes and vast ideas. All that is for us.  

The old man replied: It doesn’t belong only to you. All that we build comes late and lasts but briefly. The Fates’ wan hands play equally with your days and mine. Our terms are similarly short. Which of us will be the last to rejoice in the vaulted azure skies? Is there even one moment that guarantees us another? My great grand-nephews will benefit from the shade of the tree I plant. Well good! Would you criticize someone for taking pains over another’s pleasure? This is even a fruit I taste today. I can find joy in it tomorrow and maybe a few more days. It’s even possible I’ll count the dawn more than once over your tombs.

The old man was right. One of the three boys drowned in the very port where he embarked to go to America. Another served his republic, rising high in the ranks dedicated to Mars, the god of war. A stray shot cut short his days. The third fell from a tree he had climbed to graft a branch.

The old man shed tears, as he engraved this story on their tombstones. 

I first encountered this fable a couple of weeks after a friend’s 54-year old husband died unexpectedly. The story and the coincidence of the timing felt too real to even touch this text, much less share it with you. Months passed. I’d think about the unbearable simplicity of this fable. Last week, one of my partner’s closest high school friends died at 63. There will be no time when this fable does not feel intimate.

In a spin class the other night, Neil Young’s song, Old Mancame on and each repetition of these lines, amplified the words’ resonance: Old man take a look at my life/I’m a lot like you/I need someone to love me/the whole day through.

Indeed. We are all alike in that need to be loved. Which gives us the clue about what to do with our one wild-precious life.

Build for others. Take pains over others’ pleasure. Plant. Plant. Plant. And love.


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