Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Life 101

When a friend of mine (in earnest or not, I cannot be sure) invited me to speak to the members of his Toronto golf club (presumably as the dog and pony show at a tournament or some such other event), my immediate reaction was that I couldn’t imagine myself having anything of interest to say to a pack of linksmen. First, my foray into the rarefied atmosphere of golfing was so long ago as to be little more than a faded memory, and since then my brush with the denizens of the club house has been limited to that of a social member of our local golf club, where I host annual luncheons and dinner parties for family and friends who profess to enjoy an outing to rural Ontario by the cool waters of the slow and meandering Mississippi River. However, upon further reflection on the subject, the more fundamental question of what I might have to say to anyone (either by way of entertainment or wisdom) occurred to me. Golfers after all, notwithstanding their pretense to singularity, are still mere mortals; and surely they could profit as easily as any others from a bit of general conflab on one subject or another. One of the relics of advanced age has to be the possibility that, having endured a lifetime of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, one must surely have something of consequence to share with others, be they golfers or not.

Often my 91-year old father has observed that the way to illustrate a point is to take an absurd example of it. Thus, when he explained to me the advantage of a 20" tire on an automobile, as opposed to a standard 17", he asked me to consider how uncomfortable a car would be if its tires were only 2", in which case the automobile would bounce in and out of every pothole along the road, rather than merely rolling over them. To illustrate the conundrum of communication, let me imagine what I might tell my own son (if indeed I had one). This so-called "absurd example" captures for me the two-pronged dilemma in the transmission of knowledge and information from one person to another; viz., first, make it interesting for someone who is clearly distanced from you by significant boundaries (in this case, age and experience, and perhaps a good measure of general reluctance in both parties); and, second, make it intelligible to someone whose vernacular is not the same (in this case all the obvious differences between people). On the first point, the level of interest to which one must appeal is the level playing field of humanity. Like it or not, we’re all daily faced with the same challenges, not the least of which is just getting out of bed in the morning, much less the more complicated philosophies surrounding going to work, being productive, participating in life and overcoming the unexpected demands we must inevitably face, like it or not. On the second point, you have no doubt heard the expression, "If he knows what he’s talking about, he can express it in plain language!". This adage represents the basic truth that at its atomic level, life is quite simple. So, there you have it! Speak in abstracts, and avoid polysyllabic words! Theory and directness, in other words. Illustrative of such conceptual, clear thinking is the advice I heard from a Rabbi years ago, who said, "There are two ways to go down a river: Either you know where to go, or where not to go!". I think you’ll agree, that that bit of advice is both rudimentary and understandable by almost anyone.

Most recently, as a corollary to the development of my own continuing professional avocation, I have, perhaps oddly, dwelt considerably upon the subject of instinct. I say "oddly" because I hardly think the general perception of a lawyer is a preference for the visceral to the cerebral. Syllogistic reasoning - that is, if A =B, and B = C, then A = C - is not usually considered compatible with gut reactions. And yet, after thirty-five years of practice, I have discovered (more by trial and error than otherwise) that rationality is a highly tainted method of dealing with the world. Indeed, I have found that rationality more often than not dissuades us by deception to adopt a stance which is inherently wrong. Rationality, as touted as it is for being pure logic, is often little more than the crystallization of objects we want without a consideration of the path by which we’ll achieve them. That so-called pure thinking easily becomes muddied by the silt of our passions. It is for this reason alone that one must cultivate a fall-back situation which is reliable, and normally that default is our instincts, uncontaminated by self-serving logic. If one considers such guiding principles as, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!", the thrust of my argument should be apparent. Even if we don’t know why something is wrong, we instinctively know it is. The rationality of the quandary will do nothing more than distance you from what - usually later - will become sadly apparent. It is no easy task to learn to trust one’s instincts, as easily as it trips off the tongue. The first obstacle is that it involves blind faith. This, however, is selling instinct short. What may at first appear to be nothing more than a plain gut reaction is in fact the conglomeration of one’s entire body and life experience in an instant, a corporate tact. Never overlook the first harmonic of our existence - that of an animal. Instinct is the staple and cardinal rule by which we should be guided. And remember to give yourself some time to allow the matter to settle, even if you’re not presently sure about trusting your instincts, though frankly I suspect you’ll never be persuaded otherwise.

The penultimate instinct is of course fear of death. For those of you who are familiar with Masonic ritual, there is a saying that "nature teaches us how to die". Quite honestly, I have no idea how convinced I am of the proposition, as acceptable as it may sound on a sunny day when one’s internal organs are functioning properly. Death has also been stylized by Masons as a "dreadful subject" as indeed it is in the middle of the night, when the cold air spills over one’s cotton duvet. Balancing these observations is the inescapable fact and logic that death is inevitable. We all have a guaranteed limited shelf-life. The ubiquitous scourge of cancer has likely brought home the harsh and sobering truth of death to many. For my part, I prefer not to dwell upon the sadness of the loss of those who have died, but rather upon the importance of the way in which I shall deal with my own inevitable end. I would be stretching it to imagine that everyone has already staged their swan song, for it is likely not something most people choose to consider, if indeed we even speculate upon the possibility. However, many are the times when one reads about the "courageous battles" fought by friends and loved ones to the end; and, in fact, I have known such people myself.

To cap this off, before I become too entirely dreary, let me end by quoting some elegant person whose name I cannot recall who is reported to have said on her deathbed: You say to me, "What is the answer?", and I say to you "What is the question?".

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