Leaving Life With an Empty Trunk

I recently watched a documentary on the life of Bela Bartok, the 20th century Hungarian classical composer. He died at age 64, still full of ideas yet to be put to music paper, not to be given the life that would allow us to be enriched by his creativity. He knew it and he regretted it, saying on his death bed that he had hoped to have left the world with an “empty trunk.” His “trunk,” occupied by what he could yet compose, had he “world enough and time,” was still full.

It strikes me that Bartok’s sense of responsibility to life is admirable. He believed that since he had come into this world with nothing, as all of us do, he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself, his fellow man, and to life itself. That is, to give everything that he had, to empty himself of whatever “good” or goods he had to give. In other words, to live as full and complete a life as possible in revealing the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him.

Creative people often feel chosen. They tend to believe that they have a “calling,” something that cannot be ignored. They write or compose, not because it is a way to make a living. Indeed, they often continue their creative efforts despite the fact that, like Bartok, they cannot make a living doing it (Bartok was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment when he died). These people persist, even without recognition, out of an “inner necessity.” They write, in a way, because they cannot do otherwise. Many people consider this to be something similar to the religious calling often described by clergy.

What is your calling? Perhaps you don’t feel you have one. But even if you lack this sense of driveness and purpose, Bartok’s example might still provide you with a model for life. I think that Bartok’s notion isn’t really very different from those athletes who say that they try to “leave it all on the field,” giving everything they have to the game they are playing. And, while most of us are not great heros, creative geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate this model if we choose: to live as fully and intensely as possible, work hard, love our friends and family passionately and well, seek always to enrich our knowledge and understanding, face challenges rather than running from them, and give the world whatever we have to give in order to make it, and us, better — in Bartok’s words, to arrive at the end of our days with a trunk that is empty.

To choose such a life rejects the alternative of dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” It will also, I suspect, reduce your chance of regret. And what is regret? According to Janet Landman, it is “the persistence of the possible,” the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced, the effort not made, the life that might have been, “if only…”

Yes, the idea of living so that one might leave with “an empty trunk” has appeal.

I can think of worse philosophies of life.