“I’m Not Going to See This Again:” A Nonpolitical Life Lesson From the Inauguration

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“I want to take a look one more time. I’m not going to see this again.” President Barrack Obama had just finished his second Inaugural Address and was about to enter the West Front of the Capitol when he uttered those words, turning to look back at the National Mall. The several hundred thousand people there had just witnessed the renewal of an old tradition and cheered him throughout. But in that fleeting moment, whether we voted for him or not, the President offered us a model of how to live with a full awareness of the preciousness and passing of time.

Others have offered a different example. The great Negro Major League pitcher, Satchell Paige, advised “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you,” only half in jest. Reaching further into our history we find the cautionary biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot is the nephew of Abraham, one of the few good men in that iniquitous place. He and his wife are permitted to leave before God’s destruction of the two cities, but there is a catch. They are instructed by angels not to look back. When Lot’s wife does she is turned into a pillar of salt, apparently because her action signaled a feeling of regret.

"The Avenue in the Rain" by Frederick Child Hassam, 1917

“The Avenue in the Rain” by Frederick Childe Hassam, 1917

The President survived his look back, seeking to live in that moment just a little bit longer. Perhaps it was to absorb the history that he was participating in and appreciate all the people who traveled far to be there, mostly for him. Perhaps because it simply felt good, the kind of headiness a few of us feel in a moment of glory, but almost never on that scale. Perhaps because he knew that nothing lasts forever.

Savor the moment — that is one message we can take from what Obama did. But it needn’t be a grand historical event and we needn’t be President. It could be our daughter’s wedding or just mowing the grass. All the moments, every moment of life is here and then gone. Look, listen, breathe, smell, touch, compete, immerse, live to the fullest. Take nothing for granted, neither the commonplace nor the unexpected; neither the pain nor the pleasure.

We are participating in history, too. Our own. The President’s words apply equally well to all of us:

“I want to take a look one more time. I’m not going to see this again.”

You can see the moment I’ve described and hear the Presidents words by clicking on the link: Obama 2013 Inauguration Departure.

The image at the top is President Barrack Obama in front of a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln on February 12, 2009 by Peter Souza, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Handwriting on The Wall

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“Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you!” So said the great Negro Leagues pitcher Satchell Paige. This was one of his six rules for staying young, which first appeared in Collier’s magazine in the June 13, 1953 issue.

Good advice?

Maybe, maybe not.

The weight of regret as we look back on mistakes can be great, robbing us of the possibility of happiness now or in the future.

On the other hand, if we are to learn anything about life, some amount of reflection on the past is required.

There is also a biblical take on this to be found in the Book of Daniel. It is rendered above in a reproduction of Rembrandt’s painting Belshazzar’s Feast.

The story is told that in ancient Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar had transported loot from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem to his own royal court. At a drunken feast, his son, the new King Belshazzar uses these sacred objects of silver and gold to “praise the gods of gold and silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone.” The fingers of a hand suddenly appear and write Hebrew words on the wall behind the king. No one in the king’s party can translate the message, where upon Belshazzar summons an exiled Jew who had worked under Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel informs the king that he has blasphemed and decodes the meaning of the words:
God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end.
You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.

So it comes to pass that very evening that King Belshazzar is murdered and replaced as king by Darius the Mede.

The handwriting on the wall comes late, too late for Belshazzar to undo his misdeed and profit from the learning. Most of us have a bit better chance of putting things right and reforming ourselves and our behavior.

Unfortunately, not everyone does so, that is, takes the time to learn. Satchell Paige was right: “…something might be gaining on you.” But it just might be something important, knowledge or self-awareness that must catch up to you despite the forward rush of life.

One of Paige’s contemporaries, Adlai Stevenson II,  put it very well.

“Most people can’t read the handwriting on the wall until their back is up against it.”

My advice?

Don’t be one of those people.

Look over your shoulder now and then. A little self-reflection is a good thing.

The above image is Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, source from the Web Gallery of Art via Wikimedia Commons.