“That’s all human beings are! Just blind people!”
Emily Webb, “Our Town”
One of my favorite plays is Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, in which, in the final act, the main character, Emily Webb, after dying in childbirth, gets the chance to spend one more day on earth unseen, in her own past, reliving an otherwise ordinary day. As she watches her “living” self engage in the mundane routines of her day, Emily becomes overwhelmed at how much she and the others missed; at how much the business of their average days interrupted the moments that passed between them. The more she watches, the more Emily frantically tries to get the “living” characters to wake up. Listen to her desperate pleas for those around her to take just one moment to really see each other:
EMILY WEBB: Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed.
SIMON STIMSON: Yes, now you know. Now you know! That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance;to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those … of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.
They don’t understand, do they?
No, dear. They don’t understand
She looks toward the stage manager and asks abruptly,
through her tears:
EMILY: Do any human beings ever realize life while they
live it? every, every minute?
The saints and poets, maybe they do some.
This year, I have said goodbye to three of the most influential persons in my life: two grandfathers and one grandmother, all of my remaining grandparents, the sum of my history but one generation removed. I have buried not just these wonderful people whom I love, but the moments with them; the small, seemingly insignificant moments that are now fleeting memories in the sands of time.
They are gone, and so too are all the moments I missed. All the tender care they gave while I was so consumed with my own wants, all the deep sacrifices they made while I selfishly begged for more, all the times I raced past them to get to the next TV show. Though there are many wonderful memories I have of each of them, there are also, I’m sure, were I able to go back and observe, many missed moments where my own preoccupation got in the way.
I wonder: What if we could go back in time and watch just one day of our lives after we are gone? What if we could see what we didn’t see then? What would we see? What would we notice? What things did we miss in that moment because we were too caught up in ourselves, too afraid, too worried, too arrogant? What if we could really see all that happened in the margins–how our interactions affected others, what mattered then that didn’t end up being that big a deal, what did matter that we missed?
Now, take that same approach to today, this day. Imagine yourself twenty, thirty years from now coming back in time to this day. What might that future you be seeing that you are missing? What moments might matter that you are passing by? What are you worried about now that future you will smile upon? What might future you whisper to you about this day?
Perhaps it’s the fleeting moments of simple pleasures that you are brushing off, perhaps it’s five extra minutes tossing a football with your son, an extra story read to your daughter, a kind word to your spouse. Perhaps the you witnessing you in this very day would put a hand upon your shoulder, gently turn your head, and point to something or someone you pass by every day that, by noticing just this once, makes all the difference.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Inactivity, or rather activity in unimportant things, is quite intolerable when one thinks of how precious time is”.
How much of my life has been spent in the activity of unimportant things?
I often think of this scenario: that future me, me in my 80s, sitting alone in a retirement home somewhere, longing to relive just one day with my wife and kids, might give anything to be in this very day that I am in right now, might give anything to be able to sit once again at this very dinner table, to see once more my kids acting goofy instead of eating their carrots, to listen once more as my wife sings to them after story time, to have just one more chance to wait in the carpool line to see them walk down the sidewalk after school, to enjoy one more glass of wine on the dinner cruise in NYC with my wife, to be once more sitting three feet away from the most important people in my life. What might that me, sitting alone with nothing but my memories (and those, perhaps, fading fast) do to have this day, this one day, this very day I have right now all over again? What might that me give to be here, where I am, right now?
Carpe Diem is the right idea: seize, with everything you have, with scratching, bloodied nails, seize this day and hold on to it, for it will not come again. It will not let you revisit it. It will be gone, no more to return. This day, then, may I have the wisdom to see it for what it is: to cherish the beauty, the madness, the hope, the grief, the laughter and the tears for the precious gift that it is. May I not be found wanting having squandered it on petty things, but may it be a day wealthy in love, in friendship, in beauty, in the things that moth and rust cannot destroy.
So goodbye: I have to go watch my boys walk down the sidewalk in the carpool lane….