"It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."
Those brave words were written in Edinburgh Hospital by the poet W.E. Henley. Henley was wrong, of course. No human is master of his or her fate or captain of his or her soul. Henley was a cripple for most of his life, and when his 5-year-old daughter died, it broke his heart and his spirit. He died at age 54.
Probably the greatest and most widespread illusion, particularly for Americans, is the idea that we are in control. Actually, of course, we are not. We do not choose the time or the circumstances in which we are born. Most of us do not choose the time or circumstances of our death. Our only choice, as another English writer has pointed out, is what we do with the time we have.
We cannot really protect the people we love. The Buddhists have a saying that at the birth of a child there is only one certainty: Either the parents will bury the child or the child will bury the parents. With birth comes the certainty of death.
The Japanese samurai, the warrior ruling class of old Japan — who, by the way, saved Japan from European colonization — would begin every morning with the contemplation of their own death. As morbid as it might first strike you, that is really a good idea. If we knew for sure we would die tonight, then we would act quite differently during the day. We would be less inclined to waste time, to get hot and bothered by trivial matters.
Many people who have felt the cold breath of death testify that afterward life is different for them. They no longer take it for granted. They can see the beauty all around them. Their priorities are rearranged.
It seems to me that if we are aware that we, as individuals, will not decide the fate of the nation, much less mankind, then we can be more tolerant of people who have ideas different from ours. That most foul of human beings, the fanatic, is deluded by the belief that he or she can change the course of events. Such a maniacal ego can thus easily rationalize sacrificing other human beings to his or her goals.
We see people willing to subordinate other people's lives to their own goals all the time. It's not just dictators or elected politicians; sometimes it's parents or employers or self-appointed do-gooders. I thank God that I was born with Celtic genes that have left me completely free from any desire to control anybody or anything and able to resist automatically any attempt to control me.
Another useful thing I have learned through the years is that neither the past nor the future exists. What exists is only the present moment. We cannot change the past nor live in it except as a delusion. Tomorrow never arrives. We slide effortlessly from one today to another today. Wake up at any point in the 24-hour cycle and you are in the present moment. Tomorrow is only an assumption that we will experience yet another today. Eventually the assumption will be false.
Shakespeare saw a great truth when he wrote that all the world is a stage and we are merely players. The play was running before we made our entrance, and it will continue to run after we have made our exit. Whether anyone remembers our performance is not important. What is important is that we savor our brief time on the stage and truly live in the moment without regret for the past or worry about the future.
If anyone thinks I am advocating hedonism, that person is wrong. Life is much more than vittles, booze and a few pokes.
July 10, 2004
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on LewRockwell.com. Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.
© 2004 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.