Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Leaves of grass and the birth of the Italian nation

Leaves of grass and the birth of the Italian nation...huh?

It's all about life priorities, a topic foremost in my mind for months, and a question I've posed to my ESL students, so why not open a discussion about it on my blog dedicated to Milan?...More...

It's always good to stop and smell the roses, but are you really? (HINT: you might cherish this thought, you might even THINK that you are doing this, already, but, until a wrenching tragedy strikes you or a loved one--Cosmos forbid that it should--you probably are only scratching the surface of those proverbial rose petals.)

Poignant Stoic thoughts run through many of the spiritually-oriented (as opposed to religious institutionally-oriented) readings I enjoy. Here is one immediately at hand, which might help you think, think, and think, again, whatever religion you may (or may not) profess:

'Human life is frail, fame and everything good in it is like grass, like the flowers in the fields, which wither and fade away' (my paraphrase of Isaiah 40:6-8 and I Peter 1:24 of the King James version of the Christian Bible)

How to cope with this fragility?

A popular saying in English (someone surely will look it up on Bartlett's Quotations, and tell me...right now, I'm too lazy to do it): 'Build as if you will live forever, but live as if you will die tomorrow.'

Carpe diem.

In the real sense.

Not 'Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die' (another old hat phrase in English), but in the true Stoic sense:

'Live in the present, live each moment to its fullest, doing your best to be a better person, for your self, for those around you, for the world.'

Or, to paraphrase Marcus Aurelious, my most cherished author:

'Let your every deed and word and thought be those of someone, who can depart from life this very moment. How quickly everything vanishes: physical things from the universe, memories of them in eternity, and the ephemeral and worthless sense perceptions.

'What is it to die, but a function of nature? We need only to associate ourselves with the divine spark that is in our hearts, and to serve it truly. How do we do this? By keeping it pure from passion and aimlessness and discontent with anything that proceeds from the Universe, or our fellow men because whatever comes from the Universe is worthy of reverence, and whatever comes from men, if from love, will be compassionate, but if evil, from ignorance.

'In the end, the present lasts just as long for everyone. The past is already gone, the future is not yet here, so we can't lose either. So it is only the present from which we might depart, and the present is only what we make of it, how we view it. In a word, all the things of the body are as a river, and everything of the soul like a dream and a vapor. Life is like warfare and a pilgrimage, and fame after death is only forgetfulness.

'What then can help us on our way? One thing, and one thing only: Philosophy. And this consists in keeping the divine spark within us pure and unwronged, lord of all pleasures and pains, doing nothing aimlesslessly, or with deliberate falsehood and hypocrisy, independent of others' actions or inactions, and, in particular, welcoming whatever comes as natural, and above all, waiting for death with good grace, as a liberation, as a natural part of the cycle of life.' (Meditations, II:11-17)

What does this have to do with Milan?

Like so many other cities, Milan is studded with memorials to heroes. This year also is the 150th anniversary of the official birth of the Italian nation (though that effort stretched over a number of years, in reality).

Fame is fleeting. We live in the memory of others only so long as they live, but to have done something positive for those around us, whether on a small personal scale, or a larger civic, or national, scale, to love, truly love, those around us, and put our priorities in a proper order, in short, to examine our lives on a daily basis, that, I think, is one of the fundamental essences of what it means to be truly human.

In the days to come, I think I'll post some of those memorials around Milan.

Thanks for listening.

If you prefer a funny, but poignant, way to say all this, there's a good story floating around the internet about a philosophy professor, golf balls, pebbles sand and coffee (or beer, depending on your personal preferences). Here's just one link of many: http://towherenow.com/?p=184

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