Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Parting Glass, or The Joyous Life of a Thousand Goodbyes

Oh all the money that e'er I had / I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e'er I've done / Alas it was to none but me
And all I've done for want of wit / To memory now I can't recall
So fill to me the parting glass / Goodnight and joy be with you all

Oh all the comrades that e'er I've had / are sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e'er I've had / would wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot / That I should rise and you should not
I'll gently rise and I'll softly call / Goodnight and joy be with you all

Doctor and author Atul Gawande spoke last month at the Bryan Lecture Series about the effects of age, and the effect of proximity of death - really, the increased uncertainty regarding the risk of loss which age and some other conditions bring - on people’s perceived well-being and happiness. Dr. Gawande cites a study out of Stanford that shows fairly conclusively that the closer people are to the uncertainty of life - either to the end of their own life or to situations and circumstances that increase the possibility that life will soon end - the happier they are, the more they appreciate life. If you haven't yet read his book on this topic, "Being Mortal," then I commend it to you. 

I got to hang out this weekend with a fine bunch of Americans - men that don't need to read a book to appreciate the essence of Gawande's insights. Greater appreciation for life results from increased proximity to uncertainty regarding death? I think we call that sometimes wisdom.  It would be an unsurprising observation to many of These Men, no longer quite as young as they once were but still just as fine and full of spirit. 

Reflecting on the weekend, I want to tell them this, in ways that is hard to do over a beer or in a large ballroom: There is really no one else in this country that is as well equipped to live a joyous life as you guys are.  You have been there and you have seen the elephant, and you have come back. And whether it was through your own courage or plain dumb luck or directly due to the sacrifice of another - whether you deserve to be here or whether you do not deserve to be here -  it doesn’t matter.  You’re here.  You have an opportunity to live a joyous life.  You have learned, or had the opportunity to learn, how precious life is, how fleeting it can be, but also how glorious it can be in that uncertainty.  

The new Star Wars movie is coming out, a couple trailers released. I like many other males of a certain vintage have watched with pleasure these trailers and am excited to see the movie come out. I saw the third and final trailer just last week, right before heading to Las Vegas, and it’s a moving piece and it’s exciting.  It stirs the blood partly because you know what came before, you’ve seen all the movies, and to see a saga like that carried on is phenomenal.  But Jesus, there was one scene in that movie that spoke to me in a way that I’m not sure really spoke to many people.  Fleeting scene.  Here it is, cued up to the right spot (1:31):

Did you see - it's only a few seconds, 1:31 to 1:36. Have you ever shaken somebody’s hand in a moment like this?  Have you once been a warrior, walking off to the field of battle, and passed a fellow warrior headed out and stopped and said, "I need to shake this man’s hand one more time.  I need to look him in the eye and say I am proud to shake his hand and tell him to go off and do his job."  Yes, you have.  And the gaze between the two men, burning over the short distance, the clasp of hands pausing in a hectic moment. It was worth your time to stop and shake their hand, and that – whether the director intended that or not, whether he understood that or not, these actors nailed it. Fighter pilots scrambling to alert out on the tarmac; bombing crews huddling one last time before they go to their navigation seat, bombardier stations, ball turret guns; infantrymen leaving the wire on patrol.

You know that hand shake.  You’ve had a last hand shake with somebody. And it was worth it to say goodbye, so many other times when it turned out to be unnecessary.  Because once or twice, it was the last chance you had to shake That Man's hand. The Joyous Life of a Thousand Goodbyes.

It's hard to get together after 10+ years. It's hard to discover - almost surprisingly - that you are as at home with this group as you are with anyone else in the human race, because you know this weekend will be fleeting, and there will then be a void when it is over.  It's even harder still to part ways again, uncertain when in the next decade you will again have the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with These Men. It was overwhelmingly therapeutic to see nearly 100 of our alumni answering this new call to arms: to reassemble and reminisce over scotch, cigars, and warm hazy memories of the finest days of our young lives, and the finest of us that did not return.

Best men I've ever known. Best job I ever had.

Goodnight, and joy be with you all 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

You nailed it! I'm proud to have known every last one of the brave men!