Each year as the holidays roll around, I find myself thinking about a friend who, just before Christmas, marks the anniversary of his teenage son’s death in an auto accident. I remember with great clarity sitting in his office one afternoon while he told me the entire story. I hadn’t asked for the details, had only again told him that I hoped he was doing well. But, without introduction, he began, and I listened in that uncomfortable way that enfolds you when faced with someone’s intense grief and pain.
His son and his best friend had spent the night at the home of another family. They left in their cars at the same time in the morning, traveling together until one turned left and the other turned right. Shortly after turning, his son lost control of his car, ran off the road, hit a tree and was killed instantly. Moments later, the best friend also wrecked, was knocked unconscious and trapped in his overturned truck, which began to burn. However, when others arrived on the scene, he was found away from the truck, still unconscious and critically injured. But he was alive, and survived. He doesn’t know how he got out of the truck, and emergency personnel couldn’t explain how he could have escaped due to his injuries.
This still grieving father is convinced that his son, who had died just an instant before, saved his friend as a final act of compassion. He believes this deeply and takes comfort in this fact. And I have no reason to dispute him because I have come to believe there are things in this world that defy rational explanation.
As I rose to leave, he came from behind his desk and hugged me, which was surprising since we had only known each other a short time and mainly in a business setting. He told me the most important thing he had learned from his son’s death is that there is nothing certain in this life, and that each day we should hug the people close to us and tell them that we love them. Because, as he learned in the most horrible way possible, the day may come when you cannot do it.There are things in this life of which we can be certain. But there are a great many that are uncertain. It is these of which we should probably be most mindful because, ultimately, they will be the most meaningful. As much as we like to believe that we are in control, the truth is that our existence on this earth is a very tenuous one. As a result, we are remiss when we postpone things, believe that we will get around to them later. A Buddhist monk once wrote to another: “A tomorrow when you are gone is undoubtedly coming.”
What is important is that you do not and cannot know when this tomorrow will arrive. So even when you are the most content and happy, or the most desperate and hurt, you cannot escape the reality of our fragile existence. Or as Buddha once wrote, “This life disappears only very quickly like something written in water with a stick.”
What this means to you may be different than what it means to me, based on where we are in our lives at any given time. But it does mean that we should care about one another, that we are all part of some greater whole, regardless of who you are or what you are or where you live or what you have, or don’t have. That money cannot buy happiness, and social status says nothing about the person you are. That we cannot ignore what goes on around us because it’s too much trouble to become involved. That while the earth seems large to us, it is actually very small and very fragile. That we are accountable for our actions, both as they impact us and affect others. That a single decision, whether well-pondered or made in an instant, can indelibly change our lives forever, and also the lives of others. That the easy way is not the best way, but often the simplest solution is the best one. That any of us can make a difference, whether large or small, if we choose to act. That faith in something is better than fear of the darkness. That hope is the ultimate basis for our existence. And that, as another great visionary once offered, all you need is love.
As we approach a new year, a time in which we are prone to look backward in hopes of envisioning the future, we should each seek peace and happiness in the days ahead, always keeping in mind that we cannot know when that final tomorrow will come. Toward that end, consider these lines from the Dalai Lama that offer guidance, insight and comfort:
“I believe happiness and joy are the purposes of life. If we know that the future will be very dark or painful, then we lose our determination to live. Therefore, life is something based on hope. Hope certainly does not mean pain. No one hopes for pain or suffering. Hope means something good. Life depends on hope or expectation, and that means something good, happy or joyful. So, therefore, the purpose of life is happiness.”