instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, February 26, 2004

In pulverem reverteris

Is there any thought more liberating than, "I will die one day"?

Think about all the things you want to do, all the books you want to read, all the plays and movies and concerts you want to enjoy, all the places you want to visit, all the people you want to meet, all the dishes you want to taste, all the wines you want to sample, all the problems you want to solve, all the questions you want to answer.

You can't do them.

It's not that circumstance and fortune conspire against you doing all you desire. It's time.

If you read a book a day for a hundred years, you could make your way through one third of all books published. In the U.K. In 2001.

Once you realize you will die one day (I'm getting closer to that realization all the time), you realize you can't do everything you want to do. From which it follows that you don't have to try.

Ah, sweet freedom! That Library of America volume of Zora Neale Hurston that showed up in the mail years ago: am I ever going to read it? Don't count on it. I have nothing against Zora Neale Hurston, and I'm sure reading her works would improve me, but there are more things that would improve me than I have time to be improved by.

Death is an evil, yes, but it does serve to guarantee that there are more goods in the world than we can ever obtain. (Which means, incidentally, that "wanting it all" is a mug's game.)

So though we must wait until after death to obtain an infinitude of good (while now participating in that infinitude in an imperfect way through Baptism), we are now faced with an overabundance of good. There are more goods in the grocery store of this world than will fit in our mortal-sized shopping carts.

Is that fact liberating? Well, it should free you from indiscriminate desire. "Yes, Rocky Road, I would have enjoyed you had I chosen you. But today, I freely choose Mint Chocolate Chip, and I release you, Rocky Road, from my will."

It should also free you from the "witchery of paltry things." Too often, we complain about having only evil choices, but in fact our lives are bombarded with choices between good things. And too often, we choose the lesser good over the greater good.

Why? Because we're concupiscent, and not very good at figuring out which good is the greater and which is the lesser. But also, perhaps, because we don't stop to think that, since we only make a finite number of choices in this life, choosing one good really does mean refusing another. Life is not like a box of chocolates, where I can choose the maple creme now because I know I'll be getting around to the cherry liqueur in a minute.

So if you can't do everything, you shouldn't even try. But if you shouldn't try to do everything, you should always try to do the best things. Read the best books (and blogs); see the best movies; drink the best wines (how's that for Lenten exhortation?). What "best" means is not entirely objective; I think it does depend on you and the circumstances. (So the best wine for you, for example, may not be the finest wine. It may be the cheapest drinkable wine. It may even be water. Sorry.)

If you're doing something, you can ask yourself, "Is this the best I could be doing?" If it isn't, when were you planning on doing the best?