Thanatopsis

Maceo Keeling - SCORE Member, Business Owner and Consultant. Photo: Urban News
Maceo Keeling – SCORE Member, Business Owner and Consultant. Photo: Urban News
By Maceo Keeling –

Have you ever watched squirrels dashing about throughout the day?

They seem purposeful and deliberate as they gather nuts and food throughout the spring and summer. By my observation, they do this well into late fall. In winter they disappear completely. Yet, just as surely as we know spring will return, so will those pesky squirrels. They seem to emerge fat, happy, and, of course, with lots of new baby squirrels. That is how it goes.

I’m using this example to make a very simple and yet profound point: even a squirrel prepares for a time when food will be scarce, the weather will not be fair and sunny. Even the squirrel knows that seasons change.

People are a lot more intelligent than squirrels, but you have to ask yourself: “Are you doing what you need to do in preparation for that time when winter will arrive in your life?”

As a child, in the springtime of your life, you probably didn’t have a care in the world. Food and shelter were provided; we played, laughed, explored, and discovered the world around us. We believed that nothing can harm us. For a child, the notion of death and dying does not exist at all unless someone close to us passes on—but even then the idea is just something that happens to other people, not ourselves.

When we grow up, in the summer of our lives, like squirrels, we gather nuts. We build our life, find work, a place to live, a significant other; if we’re fortunate, we create a home and family and career, and—at least for a while—we believe we can do anything. We are too busy to consider our own mortality—and even if we do, we are too busy “doing” today to spend time planning for tomorrow. We tend look to the future as if it is guaranteed, and comfortably padded with a cozy quilt we can nestle into in our old age—which is always much, much farther away in our imaginations than in reality!

Suddenly it’s the autumn of our life, and we begin to ask questions and contemplate great mysteries. “Your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams.” And even if, in the autumn of our life, we aren’t quite “old” yet, we start to dream, to wonder, about what is to come. (Think of the euphemisms we come up with: at 70 our great-grandparents were old; at the same age our parents were senior citizens; but at 70 today, we’re in “late middle age.”)

But however young we feel, or pretend to feel, in our autumn years we start to ask ourselves, “What’s next?” We begin to evaluate our faith, the life we have lived, the friends we have chosen, the things we have acquired. We wonder if it has all been worthwhile.

And then, suddenly it seems, just as surely as autumn follows summer, we turn a corner and we’ve ambled into the winter of our life. Wisdom has shown us, and experience too, that we must join an “innumerable caravan” and an unstoppable march towards death. Somehow the reality has crept into our consciousness and we begin to contemplate our own mortality.

I wonder if the squirrel knows that one day it will die, if it prepares for its own death. We’ll probably never know, but one thing we can clearly see is that a squirrel prepares for winter.

Years ago, in the springtime of my life, I received a gift from a gentleman I met on the plane. I was bursting with energy, and not the least bit concerned about my mortality; I believed I had the world on a string. The gentleman, who appeared to be in his eighties, recited from memory this poem he’d learned as a school boy. It was an excerpt from the poem “Thanatopsis,” by William Cullen Bryant.

“Thanatopsis” means meditation or contemplation of death, and the poem is an elegy that attempts to console us in the face of certain death. Its strong suggestion is that death and its aftermath will be what we make of it. We can find peace in knowing that there is a season for all things, and that we will not be alone. And, most important, that with faith and trust in the rightness of nature, we can wrap ourselves in comfort and embrace death, rather than fear it.

Here now is my gift, as it was once given to me:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon; but, sustain’d and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

“You don’t have to be great! Be your best YOU! Answer the call!”

 


Dr. King had a dream, now we must have vision. The Conscious Call radio program airs every Monday at 11:30 a.m. on WRES-FM 100.7. In a collaboration with the radio program, the Urban News will help keep readers informed about events, programs, news, and the progress of The Conscious Call. For more information, contact the Conscious Call at (828) 989-6999 and visit www.theconsciouscall.com.

The opinions and statements made in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of The Urban News.

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