On Christmas letters and the many lives we live

26 Dec

Christmas Letter

The age-old question asked again: What is a life?

  • Is it working and dying?
  • Is it working, loving and dying?
  • Is it creating?
  • Is it destroying?
  • Is it accumulating great wealth, then giving that wealth away?
  • Is it joy?
  • Is it sorrow?
  • Is it discovery?
  • Is it about spiritualism and seeking?
  • Is it daily, incremental, almost immeasurable contributions to society that in the aggregate serve an unknown purpose and take civilization toward its unknown destination?

If you read Christmas letters, it almost seems as if life is an uneventful routine interrupted by vacations. In these letters, trips to Cancun and Jackson Hole are the highlights. Without them existence seems to be a neutral purgatory.

The Christmas letters I receive are well written, well intended and appreciated. Their authors give more time to holiday correspondence than I do. I look forward to them and recognize that they are general updates, not soul-revealing confessionals or philosophic tracts.

Then why do I see these vacant holes? What I’m probably seeing in the lives of others are my own disappointments.

There are studies showing that as people approach the end of their careers, they have this regret: I worked too hard and didn’t spend enough time enjoying life.

My regret is the opposite: I enjoyed life too much and didn’t work hard enough.

SontagOn the couch, enjoying life and not working, I recently saw a documentary on the late Susan Sontag, a writer of considerable note who was one of those strong, powerful voices of the 60s and 70s. She would use her intellect to arouse and shock; to awaken people from their slumber and begin a dialogue.

In the Nancy Kates documentary “Regarding Susan Sontag,” we see a person who from a young age was obsessed with knowing everything, filtering it with her perspective, then sharing it.

She wrote fiction, took photos and made movies, but was best known for her essays – her true voice. Ms. Sontag had many serious lovers and nearly all these relationships involved not just romance but art and creativity. In every way, at every turn, Susan Sontag was about learning and expressing herself.

That’s a life, but a hard one lesser beings to live.

We all can’t be like Susan Sontag, but to bring purpose and meaning to live – if not to our Christmas letters — we can find one thing that we enjoy and do it over and over again until it approaches perfection.

That’s a life, one that turns routine into bliss.

Jiro OnoA master’s of this approach is an 89-year-old man named Jiro Ono. He owns a tiny, 10-seat restaurant at an underground subway stop in Tokyo. By almost all accounts, he is the greatest sushi chef in the world. His remarkable life and work are explained in the film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” directed by David Gelb.

The film starts slow and then builds. At first, it let’s you think that making sushi amounts to little more than grabbing fish and rice and melding them together with four or five motions of the hands. Deeper into the film, you see the intense, complex process that leads up to this final step. And it becomes clear that Jiro, as he approaches retirement, views each day as a gift that affords him yet another chance to better himself. When he says his apprentices must work 10 years before learning anything, you believe him.

“I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top,” he says. “But no one knows where the top is.”

As I viewed the marvelous film, I considered it one big metaphor on finding life’s calling regardless of class or stature.

There is a third approach to life and purpose that I’d like to discuss, and in a direct contradiction to my earlier statements on Christmas letters, it was in a Christmas letter that I found it.

The letter writer was a research scientist who had been a friend since high school. At the time, I was living abroad and out of touch with everyone. The letter updated me on a jarring ordeal through which my friend went. It led me to tears. I don’t have the letter in hand and cannot duplicate the emotional impact that was carried by the straight-ahead prose. So I will just state the basic facts.

My friend detailed the journey of her young daughter, who after becoming violently ill was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She covered the many surgeries, the ups and downs, the fear and scares and the small hopes. And then at the end, she expressed the incredible joy and elation of her ultimate Christmas present – that all traces of the tumor had finally been removed and that her daughter would grow up to live a normal life.

Could it be that the most meaningful life is one where you battle against the things set on destroying you?

WAR AND CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  KOREAN WAR/AID & COMFORTI once heard a former soldier discuss how sharp his senses became when he was placed in a combat zone. He said he was aware of everything around him, from a breeze shifting the leaves of a tree to the sun easing through a cloud. These heightened sensations were necessary to stay alive, but they also acted as an addictive drug and brought on a great high. He said that only while facing death could he fully experience life. When he returned home, safe and unthreatened, the sensations faded. He felt as if he had lost some godly power and slipped into depression.

The true life then may be one of basic survival.

When I posed my question about life at the outset, I didn’t intend to answer it, or even come close. Rather, I wanted to review a few possibilities. If you found something you can use, all the better. Writing this helped me sort a few things out on an intellectual level. On a practical level, I’m not so sure.

But as a result, I guess I have written a Christmas letter. And I didn’t even have to go to Cancun.

Merry Christmas to all. The best of the New Year, and the best of life.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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