Lessons from the ones who weren't supposed to die


Everyone comes with a fairly well-defined expiration date. We thus readily accept death among the elderly. Premature departure is usually defined as the demise of anyone younger than yourself.

Early checkouts are usually eulogized as having had such great promise, so much more to give, too much zoom for the tomb. But they remain nonetheless gone. Dead. History.

In our conceit as the self-anointed chosen of some vaguely defined almighty, we constantly search for divine motives in the message pad of mother nature. When we become so bold and conceited as to presume to know the mind of god, we commit the forgotten sin of presumption. It may be arrogant, but it's understandable.

Mankind accepts only gods made unto man's image and likeness. By looking at the tiny world of our everyday experience, and the tinier world within our midgety minds, we presume to play Sherlock Holmes and draw conclusions about some unseeable, unknowable entity which must know more than we do. Do we ever have a case of low self-esteem.

We commit the sin of presumption in a blind search for faith. We want to believe in something greater than ourselves, but are willing to place our trust only in someone just like ourselves. Politicians take advantage of this all the time. Hence, ludicrous spectacles such as Yankee George Bush wearing cowboy boots and munching pork rinds (he actually preferred snacking on popcorn), or nuclear physicist Jimmy Carter selling himself as a humble peanut farmer.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to vote for garden variety people who will try their best to be like me or the guy on the streetcorner. I want superior talent in public office. And I expect much more of a Supreme Being. The giants of Mount Olympus or the Charlton Heston lookalike on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel may cut it for some folks, but their numbers are dwindling.

In our arrogance or ignorance, we use ourselves as proof that something "greater than us" must exist. Then, we look to our flawed selves for clues or reflections of that something. That's the philosophical equivalent of trying to get through a door by bricking it up.

Older deities become lesser gods as faith in previous explanations erodes. UFO believers and churchgoers reached parity long ago. This at least demonstrates a belief that perhaps our little minds can indeed grasp the unknowable no matter what the orthodoxy preaches.

In 1952, writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote a screenplay about a smalltime hoodlum visited by a weird woman making an even stranger offer. For $200,000 cash and absolutely no risk, would he steal some priceless art treasures from the local metropolitan museum?

Sure, but how? The mysterious client loans him a high-tech bracelet which allows its wearer to move faster than a hummingbird on steroids. The bracelet provides a personal fast-forward zone invisible to the rest of the world which still moves at its regular pace.

The crook steals the art, then offers half his pay to keep the bracelet for future thievery. His client agrees, but informs him that she was sent from 1,000 years in the future to retrieve as many of our cultural treasures as possible before the end civilization via nuclear device. The cataclysm will take place within 60 seconds of his removal of the bracelet.

Of course, if he keeps it on his wrist, he can live to old age—alone in a world of fleshy mannequins frozen in time.

I never forgot that story because we are that man. We all wear that time-twisting bracelet. This planet has circled our minor star for about 4.5 billion years. Reduced to a 24-hour day, the existence of mammals would take only the last five or six seconds. The lengths of our lifetimes, no matter what their durations in months or years, don't amount to the bat of a hummingbird's eyelash, steroid-enhanced or not.

Our lives at times seem slow and tedious, although we circle the sun at more than 65,000 miles per hour. That tedium is only a personal prison of our own construction.

Every so often, it does us good to step back and look at ourselves in terms of the thief with the bracelet.

Which reality do you prefer? Do you have a choice? I've lately seen some encouraging signs that times are changing.

"Time passed, time went on, and it did so by turning on itself like a wheel," wrote English art critic and novelist John Berger of the French farming village he called home. "Yet for a wheel to turn, there needs to be a surface like the ground which resists, which offers friction," Turner concluded.

Our quickly-burning lives are the result of the friction between our particular times and time itself. All around me, I see people slowly recognizing that reality.

I know a community activist who's learning the therapeutic benefits of just saying no. He's resigning from a few of the many boards and commissions upon which he has long served. His family told him they've missed him.

I know a successful, high energy entrepreneur who's finally going to see a doctor about his tingles and chest pains. And maybe stop smoking.

Collapse is not a necessary prelude to revelation. Take a moment each day to remember those who died younger than you. Learn from them. I learned from my friend Bert, who went out to celebrate his 25th birthday and drove into the terminal end of a telephone pole.

I remember my high school best friend's big sister who supposedly died of a ruptured aorta after being thrown from a horse. Actually, she was the victim of a back-alley abortionist, a secret the ashamed family harbored like a festering cyst for the next 25 years.

I remember the disk jockey who died at 53, exercising in a gym between cigarettes. I remember several media personalities of my acquaintance who drank themselves to death.

I remember and I analyze and I try to learn. I try to take advantage of my time inside the bracelet-born time warp. I rejoice in the people I've known, the places I've been and the things I've seen.

On this early summer Sunday morning, take a little time to reflect on your times. It will better prepare you for the inevitable moment when you hear a voice whispering the words of e.e. cummings:

"There's a hell of a good universe next door. Let's go."

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano
Andrew Barbano is a Reno-based syndicated columnist and 28-year Nevadan.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988. This column originally published 6/29/97.

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