A Few More Words

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After nearly six days of almost nonstop eulogizing, memorializing and remembering NBC’s Tim Russert, there’s not much left to say — except, of course, what I’m going to say.

That consists of only three things. I wish I had known him. We should all follow his example of living each day with enthusiasm. And his unexpected death is a reminder to us all that life at best is short, and its duration uncertain.

The perception of time is a funny thing. We all know that when we are young, time seems to drag along at a sluggish pace. In elementary school, in mid-May it always seemed as if June and freedom from the classroom would never come. That 21st birthday often seems to dig in its heels and delay its arrival.

Then as we get older, time picks up speed. We have children, and bingo — they’re grown. Birthdays begin to arrive on what seems like a monthly rather than a yearly basis. Pretty soon the view ahead is shorter than the view behind. We begin to face up to things we aren’t going to do, like read the Great Books of the Western World, take up mountain climbing as a hobby or master a foreign language.

That’s when we begin to wish we had lived at a more hectic pace, but it’s too late. As the German joke puts it, "Too soon old, too late smart."

So, those of us still able can profit from Russert’s example and accept each day as the gift it truly is.

A samurai wrote a book called Hagakure a couple of centuries ago. It’s a commentary, but it also contains advice to younger samurai. The samurai were professional warriors attached to a warlord. He advised them upon arising each morning to pause and imagine their own death that day, lest they get careless or lackadaisical. Seems gloomy at first, but it’s not a bad idea. You should try it. It will help put minor irritations like traffic jams into their proper perspective. Contemplate a massive coronary, and being five minutes late doesn’t seem all that important.

Russert’s life is itself a good example. He was the son of a sanitation worker, born without any influential contacts. Yet with hard and smart work, he rose to the top of an intensely competitive business. The cynical statement that it’s not what you know but who you know simply isn’t true in most cases.

This kind of Horatio Alger story still occurs in America. Two of my closest and dearest friends, one Korean and one Palestinian, came to this country literally without a penny and unable to speak English. With years of hard and smart work, both amassed fair-size fortunes. They are both now eloquent speakers of English and tremendous lovers of America.

Too often I think we get mired in thinking about problems to the point of overlooking America’s successes. Some groups get mired in thinking of themselves as victims, which is a dead-on formula for failure. Welfare has ruined a lot of people. Cynicism can poison even holy water.

Brother Dave Gardner said, "Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get."

It is obvious that Russert was both successful and happy. He had everything he wanted, except time. But there again is another tricky aspect of time.

Marcus Aurelius, a pretty smart Roman emperor, said it doesn’t matter if people die old or young because they lose the same thing — the present. We always live our lives in the present. The past exists only as memory, and the future exists only in our imagination.

My dad died the same way Russert did: suddenly, without a day of sickness. I know that’s the way he would have wanted it. Except for missing his family, I suspect Russert is just as glad to have skipped old age and decline, too.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.

© 2008 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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