Performers, Priests, and Other Intermediaries

Do you remember your childhood friend, the one who knew the girl you fancied, the one who was the intermediary between you and “your heart’s desire,” who let you know if she was equally fond of you, and who passed messages and notes between the two of you? And do you remember when you asked one parent to “run interference” with the other, to shield you from the blow or scolding or grounding that you were afraid you would receive if your defender couldn’t soften the heart of the other? These were probably your first experiences with the role of an intermediary.

Putting these things in the terms of childhood memory will, I hope, help you to recall just how important that mediator was, how much you counted on her or him to put things right for you, how much dependency was involved, and how grateful you were if she was able to do the job of advocating for you efficiently and well.

As adults we still use these kinds of mediators, intermediaries, or advocates. Lawyers “make our case,” accountants talk to the IRS on our behalf, reference persons write letters or recommendations to potential employers or universities, agents negotiate salaries for us, and a marital therapist tries to help two people repair their relationship.

But the intermediaries whom we most esteem, I think, are those that perform a public form of intercession. I am speaking of musicians, actors, and clergymen.

What do I mean by this? Let’s start with musicians. They take the printed note on the page of music paper and give it life—sing it, play it, form it in the way that they understand the notation. The players interpret the music. It is said that they “recreate” it, but truly, it does not exist except as an abstraction until they begin to perform it; we do not hear it until they begin to “make” the music. They are the intermediaries between the composer (who might be long dead) and us.

So too, actors and actresses. They give life to the playwright’s or script writer’s words. These players shape the words, give them emphasis and color, drama and intensity. And they are the carriers of the playwright’s meaning, his advocates and his intermediaries in the communication he hopes to bring to us, the audience.

Clergymen and clergywomen serve much the same purpose, only with religious texts. If you believe that they serve a higher being, then you also believe that they mediate between God and man. Their sermons, if eloquently delivered, are no less moving than the sounds of stirring music or the voice that an actor gives to Shakespeare’s lines.

We esteem these mediators, in part, because (at their best) they reveal to us a higher, loftier, more intense and creatively imagined way of being; they move us to tears or to excitement or to hope; they quicken life, stimulate thought, open our hearts, teach us, and, if we are ready, change us.

Given the effect that they have on us, these mediators receive our appreciation and, sometimes, adulation. Indeed, because the composer or playwright or screen writer has given over the task of performance to these people (while he is in the shadows, even if alive), we can lose sight of the author of the creative work being presented to us on stage. And, so too, the recreative artist (the actor or musician) can get a bit too carried away with his own self-importance. Indeed, it is rare for the great conductors, singers, actors, violinists, and actresses of the world not to be at least a little full of themselves.

One who was not, however, is the subject of an excellent new biography: Serving Genius: Carlo Maria Giulini by Thomas Saler.

Giulini was an Italian symphony and opera conductor who lived from 1914 to 2005. His humility in the face of the geniuses he served, that is, the great composers, would have been for nothing if not for his own talent in giving life to their music. Giulini felt that his role was a small one, as the servant of these great men, as the mediator of something much bigger, more important, and more lasting than himself. Giulini was a man both great and good, an extraordinarily rare combination. I had the good luck to hear him perform dozens of times and to interview him once (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I was interviewed for Mr. Saler’s book).

Giulini took his role as the link between composer and listener very seriously; indeed, the responsibility to the composer, to do his art justice, was a weighty one to this enormously conscientious man. Giulini gave the concert that celebrated the liberation of Rome from fascist control in 1944 during World War II. Soon after, he was asked to play Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, pieces he admired but did not feel ready to perform. Pressured to do so in a concert that was well received, Giulini nonetheless felt he had let down both the composer and the audience by playing these pieces before he was convinced of how to best recreate every note. It was 22 years before he finally felt that conviction and again conducted any work of Bach.

As quoted in the biography, Robert Marsh said of the conductor, “He is one of the most completely civilized men I have ever met, one who can command without every raising his voice, who wins and holds your loyalty by the nobility of his character. If music is to lead us to the fullest awareness of humanistic values, men such as Giulini will be the models we must follow.”

Intermediaries. They mean a great deal to us.

As you can tell, Giulini did to me.

A World Without Heaven

What would a world be like without the “idea” of heaven? How would people behave? What would they live for?

Of course, it is not as if the world that we live in, where the notion of an afterlife or some form of continuing existence is prevalent, is perfect. No, there are lots of wars and disagreements in contemporary life. But perhaps we are able to escape a sense of desperation in the belief that modern medicine, prudent behavior, and the possibility of an afterlife will allow us to continue our existence for a while at least, and perhaps permanently.

The ancient, pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s day could not so easily apply the balm of eternal life to their troubled psyches. They had no notion of a heaven of the type that Christians believe in, no sense of reincarnation such as the Hindus expect, no Muslim vision of paradise, no anticipation of a reunion with relatives and friends who had predeceased them. Instead, death led to a trip to Hades, the underworld, where existence was a pale and not very attractive shadow of earthly life, not something to be eagerly awaited. So if we want to know how men live when the notion of heaven doesn’t exist, we might well look to these people.

Remember too, that the life of the pre-literate Greeks (the Greek alphabet is thought to have come into existence somewhere around 800 B.C.) was painfully short. Even at the turn of the last century, around 1900, the average American lived only about 50 years. The brevity of life was certainly known to the ancient Greeks.

Greek literature and philosophy point to two driving concepts that motivated men. (And I speak of men, because women were extraordinarily disadvantaged in that period, seen as having almost no function or status other than for sex, companionship, rearing children, and domestic handicrafts). Honor and glory were what men sought. Honor tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used. Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and very similar material things–the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) is another matter. What might glory have consisted of in a world without heaven? It took the form of a reputation or fame that continued beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. This was usually achieved by being a great hero or warrior. In war, then, one could hope to grasp both of these things: the honor that came with sacking cities and accumulating wealth, slaves, and sexual partners; and the glory of having the fearlessness, strength, and tenacity to carry out that accumulation via battle; sufficiently so that people would (sometimes literally) sing your praises after you were dead.

As I mentioned, today’s world doesn’t strike me as much different from yesterday’s on the point of achieving honor, although we are a little more discreet about our sexual conquests and have largely risen above keeping slaves. On the subject of glory, however, we seem to do everything we can to avoid death, which in the ancient Greek world was the only path to glory; a path that required both risking one’s own death on the battle field and inflicting it on others in the same place. So, whether you believe in heaven or not, it would seem that the “idea” of heaven has had some civilizing effect. There are, after all, more ways of getting to heaven in our cosmology than killing people, despite what some terrorist/martyrs might tell us.

To me what is important here, apart from the question of a civilizing effect of a particular religious concept, is the human need to conquer death as revealed in the heritage that the pre-literate Greeks have bequeathed us and, of course, in our own religious behavior. Both the ancient Greeks and most of us seem to hope that when we breathe our last, we are not finished forever. It is not a new idea, even if our solutions to the dilemma of mortality are (in part) different from those of our ancestors.

Unless, of course, you are such a brave soul that you have dispensed with the idea that you will live on in any form much beyond the time of your earthly demise: not in words or writings, not in great buildings that bear your name, not in photos or videos, not in businesses or charities or foundations that survive you, not in the students you have taught, not in your artistic creations or inventions, not in visits to your grave site, not in making the world a better place for those who succeed you; not in the biological output of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who continue your genetic line.

Clearly, it is pretty hard to give up the idea of glory, some sort of posterity–the hope for an afterlife–isn’t it?

(Footnote: this essay was prompted by rereading The Iliad and The Odyssey for the first time in many years, and by listening to the lecture series The Iliad of Homer by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of the University of Maryland. This course and many others are offered by The Teaching Company. Professor Vandiver is a wonderful instructor and I have relied heavily on her discussion of honor and glory in the pre-literate Greek world in this essay. I can strongly recommend courses sold by The Teaching Company. I should say, however, that I am in no way affiliated with that organization or benefit from any purchases from them that you might make; I’m simply a satisfied customer).

The Meaning of Life is…

Thoughtful people since the beginning of time have looked for the answer to the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life? But recently I’ve begun to wonder whether perhaps it is the wrong question. The existentialists have long suggested that it is our job, each of us, to find our own meaning. But even if you believe in the idea that we must take responsibility for the one life that we have and view it as a creative act, to make what we can of it, I’m still not convinced that the question is the best one available.

What then might be a better question? The question I’m thinking of is, what are the meanings of a life, the purposes to which one puts that life? In other words, the meaning of a life, its target or goal, would be viewed as a changeable and changing thing, not just different from one individual to another as the existentialists suggest, but different depending upon the moment that the question is asked of any single life. It might be one thing when you are 15 and quite another when you are 50, still another at 75.

But first let us consider very briefly the answers to the original question, what is the meaning of life? One could go on at length about the various “isms: hedonism, stoicism, and so forth. I will not do this. Others know more about them and have already discussed them at great length. Still, one must give a nod in the direction of the meaning of life being the simple biological fact of procreation, continuing the human race. The religious might argue that the will of God for each individual as the meaning for that particular person, along with doing honor to God’s law. Then there are those who believe that life is intended to increase one’s understanding and knowledge, or to have the maximal amount of pleasure, or to perfect oneself by fulfilling your innate talents and capacities, or to make the world a better place than you found it, or quite simply to love in a deep and abiding fashion.

But, my current thought is that there is no single meaning for all persons, but changing meanings as we grow up and age. Early-on, the meaning of our lives is perhaps to be found in discovering what we can do, who we are, and mastering the extraordinary number of things any little person has to learn just to get out the door and off to school. Not far into the process one must determine how to relate to people, how to honor yourself without disrespecting others, figuring out where you stand in the pecking order of athletic, intellectual, and social competition. Discovering one’s vocation must be on the list, since most of us take so much meaning from what we do for a living, be it as a captain of industry, a scholar, a salesperson, or parent. All the better if what we do for a living provides a sense of fulfillment, creativity, acknowledgment, accomplishment, and growth.

Meaning is to be found in a life-partner too, in love, in family, in raising a child, and in risking your heart. And over time, friendships, especially if they are life-long, have great value and define us as people and as members of a tiny group of two or more friends or part of a community, pulling-together to do something worthwhile.

In war-time, loyalty, comradeship, and courage take special meaning; even to the point that, a few years before World War II, the Japanese government proclaimed loyalty as essential to the national morality. And, in the war itself, the idea of behaving honorably in the face of certain death, never allowing himself to be captured, guided the Japanese soldier and gave meaning to his service. Emperor, country, and comrades counted for a lot; even the importance of family sometimes diminished in the heat of battle, by comparison, when it was necessary to steel one self against the terror of combat.

Under less severe circumstances, learning is something that gives purpose as we work to understand ourselves and the human condition, as well as particular things about the world. Later on in life, for many people comes a certain generosity of spirit, a desire to help those who are coming after us, to lend a hand. And the shortness of time contributes to intensity of feeling, making the beauty of the earth, a smile, a song, an act of kindness, or an embrace all the more touching because we know that before too long, the sweetness of life will no longer be ours to savor.

Having taken all this time on the question I’ve raised, I think there is danger in spending too much time on trying to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life? If one has learned anything from life itself, it is that the time is precious and waiting in contemplation for a revelation of what we should do risks squandering the time we have. But most of us are comforted by a sense of direction, and one should try to determine what is of value, and to conform one’s behavior to what is important and worthy of effort and time. Indeed, mindfulness and commitment-based psychotherapies work very hard to encourage the person to become detached from things that are not important, and instead to focus him on his values and how to “live” them.

There is worth, then, in simply knowing that the clock is ticking and that the day is short; but only if that knowledge creates a sense of urgency in you and the desire to make the most of the time.

As John Donne wrote so long ago:

“Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”

After Life

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The subject of religion is a dangerous one. Many people have strong opinions for and against. It makes little sense to trying to persuade someone that God does exist, or that he/she doesn’t.

At the risk of offending you, I’m going to offer a few random thoughts on the subject, with particular focus on the question of whether there is a life after death and what it might consist of. I don’t claim to be strongly attached to all of these thoughts, but I do find them interesting; you might as well. If, however, you are 100% certain of the validity of your own opinions (or that of your faith or lack of faith), I’d suggest that you don’t read further.

So, if you are still with me…

When I was a kid, an athlete who hit a home run or scored a touchdown generally didn’t make an enormous deal of it. Today athletes are much more demonstrative, not a bad thing in itself. However, a good number of them point to the sky, presumably to heaven, to give thanks. In some cases it represents the same “Gott mit uns” attitude, an essentially tribal view, that some countries adopt in and out of war-time: “God on our side.” In other cases, the jocks state that they are giving thanks simply for the good health and ability that they believe they have been given by God. Well, first of all, I sure hope God has better things to do than to side with one team or another. But there is actually a pretty funny story about this, in W. P. Kinsella’s collection of short stories, The Thrill of the Grass. The story is called The Last Pennant Before Armageddon and its about the Cubs winning the pennant.

On the subject of heaven, it seems that we all want to go there, but we don’t have a really clear idea about what it consists of. Many references are made to deceased loved ones looking down on us and looking after us from beyond the grave. But think about that for a moment. What if heaven does consist of people who do care, and care a lot, about what is going on back on this mortal coil? How can they be living in never-ending happiness? Seeing all the unhappiness, the accidents, injuries, and disappointments of life is heartbreaking and tough enough when you live here. To think that the dead are suffering with us from afar doesn’t sound like my idea of a better world.

On the other hand, let’s assume for the moment that “the dead don’t care,” a refrain in Thomas Lynch’s book Undertakings. (Lynch is both a published poet and a professional undertaker, so he has a rather interesting vantage point on death). If our parents and loved ones no longer care about us (and assuming that they reside in heaven), they must be quite different creatures than they were on earth. And I can’t imagine the petty jealousies of life, the hunger, the (at least) occasional insomnia, the worry, and so forth, being the lot of those in any heaven worthy of the name. So, if people actually do go to such a place, I doubt that we would quite recognize them as being very much like they were on earth. And, frankly, one would be so transformed in transit to heaven as to have difficulty recognizing oneself.

A number of people commented on how the recent death of Farrah Fawcett was overshadowed by the death of Michael Jackson. A few of my patients expressed the fact that they felt sorry for Farrah that the media didn’t attend more to her passing. It is a touching sentiment. But, if Thomas Lynch is correct, Farrah wasn’t bothered by it.

I recommend that you watch a Japanese movie of several years ago, After Life. It depicts a group of recently deceased people who assemble at a sort of transit station on the way to whatever is beyond. They are told that they will have several days to decide on their own version of eternity, which will consist of living forever in whatever single moment they choose from their just-ended life history on earth. They are each assigned a counselor of sorts, to assist them in the choosing process. To live “in the moment” necessitates that they give up that part of themselves that, like all humans, allows them to look back and remember the past, as well as to look forward and anticipate the future. Experiencing whatever large or small single event is most precious involves sensations and feelings attached only to that slice of time rather than to thought, analysis, worry, reflection, or concentration on other things, even including other positive relationships, experiences, and events. And so, perhaps not surprisingly, each person in the movie struggles with giving up all of their other memories, relationships, and daily preoccupations in return for an eternity of living within a single instant in time with a single focus.

To me, it sounds like a heaven worth wishing for, one that would really be wonderful, assuming that one would choose a particularly joyous or exciting or touching instant of one’s life. And it raises an interesting question: what moment would you choose?

Do we fear death or dying? Just asking. Shakespeare’s Hamlet clearly worries about the afterlife not being so much fun. If you haven’t read his famous soliloquy in a while, the one that starts “To be or not to be…,” you might want to take a look at what thoughts about death ultimately stopped him from taking his own life:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Another film on the subject of life and afterlife is called Defending Your Life. Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep star as two forty-something, recently deceased Yuppies who meet in the place you supposedly go after you die, Judgment City. There, you are subjected to a sort of tribunal where it is determined whether you learned enough and accomplished enough in your earthly existence to win you a place on the next higher level of existence, presumably something like heaven. Streep’s character was a brave, generous, and loving person in life, so there is no question that she will go on to the next level. For Brooks’s character, however, things aren’t looking too good. He never overcame his fear of a great many things on earth, so he might just get sent back, reincarnated without memory of his past, in the form of a new-born little boy. And, if this happens, the love affair that has begun in Judgment City between him and Streep’s character will end. I won’t spoil the rest of the film for you, but it is a very funny, entertaining, and wise movie about the need to learn and progress and grow throughout our lives, and to be brave in facing whatever is difficult for us.

And, who knows, maybe there is something like a Judgment City ahead for all of us.

The above image is Stratocululi. Source: German Wikipedia, original upload 3. September 2004 by de: Benutzer. Living Shadow. Courtesy of Wikimediacommons.