Sunday, April 26, 2009

Annals of Heroism, 1: A Way to Die, A Way to Live

Your correspondent is typically a pretty optimistic fellow, not a morbid sort. However, death is part of life, and the last nine months or so I've had death come to mind more than usual, what with the death of a parent, and now, of course, the swine flu outbreak in Mexico; even one of the family cats died. An incident mentioned in the news today reminded me that, although we have no choice but to die, we have a great deal of choice in the how of it all.

This video and this report from news organizations in Florida tell the story of 70-year-old Mr. Charles Schulze. Mr. Schulze noticed two boys, 9 and 12 years old, caught in the currents and about to drown, off Pompano Beach in Florida (pictured). According to the reports, Mr. Schulze dove in, and brought both the boys close enough in to shore for others to bring them the last bit to safety. Unfortunately, then he was at trouble in the currents himself. Although rescued, he was declared dead at the hospital.

There are lessons to be learned here.

First lesson: One needs to be prepared for the moment of trial, when it comes. My guess is that Mr. Schulze was in pretty good shape for 70 years old, to be able to swim out into the surf and save those two boys. When one sees the struggling swimmers out in the current, it's a little too late to start laying off the snack food, a little too late to start the exercise and swimming program. The trial comes when it comes; at that point, the time for preparation is past. However it is that one feels about matters of spirituality, surely the parable of the wise and foolish guests (Matthew 25: 1-13) has applicability across traditions.

Second lesson, probably the most important: Be a hero, to someone. As I have said before, our lives are not our own. Be oriented to helping people.

This so flies in the face of the prevailing ethics of the modern world: 'Look out for Number 1,' 'Make your pile,' 'Take the money and run,' 'Every man for himself.' That Mr. Schulze is being called a hero is unimportant; unfortunately, soon enough that will be forgotten. However, even the very last hour of his life had meaning and purpose that transcended the accomplishments of all the media Idols that shall ever be, all the bonuses that the so-called Masters of the Universe in the financial world have been pouting and shouting about.

I am reminded of the statement in the Talmud, the accumulated written wisdom of the rabbis of about twenty centuries ago: "whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." Everything good that these two boys could ever do for the rest of their lives, every descendant they could ever have, at that moment hung by a thread over the Abyss--and then Mr. Schulze saved their lives.

Third lesson: Don't be afraid to die doing good. The point of life is not to live forever--at least, not as the kind of beings we are now. Whether your beliefs point in the direction of the Hindu Atman; the traditional Jewish, Christian, or Islamic heaven; the Buddhist Nirvana or Pure Land; the Wiccan Summerlands; the LDS notion of Eternal Life; many other traditions besides--whatever spiritual tradition claims your attention, the point of life is to improve oneself, even to perfect oneself, through service to others. There may be much else besides, but every tradition will claim at least this much, I think. It's not about getting the most toys, or playing the life game of Pig-in-Trough, as Robert de Ropp put it in that 1960s masterpiece, The Master Game. The point is to live one of the central paradoxes of human life: by becoming someone other than we started life as--the self-centered infant, of whatever age--we become who we really are meant to be. To die doing good: the perfect endgame in the Great Game. It is how I would want to go. I hope I have the preparation and the guts to follow through on that wish.

Fourth lesson: Don't be afraid to do good after you die, either. The fact of the matter is, we can all give someone life through our deaths. We might not all have a moment of final, dramatic heroism. But how about being a hero to someone through organ donation? (Let's face it, folks--you're not going to be using them any more.) Sure, it may make you squeamish--but it can give sight to the blind, air to those short of breath, life to those whose hearts are giving out.

Having a life that means something, even in one's death: That may be the most on-the-mark of all.

(The picture, by Friejose, is from the Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.)


  1. That's beautiful, Mark. I truly wish my husband felt comfortable with me being an organ donor. As for the rest, well, you have once again managed to say it all. Thank you.

  2. Jessica, you are very kind. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    Readers generally: If any of you would care to discuss or explore your feelings about organ donation, just contact me through the e-mail address on my Blogger profile (see the sidebar). No pressure; you just may find it worthwhile to toss things back and forth.


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