Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1964
As we gather for this memorial service, we are reminded that everyone of us will someday be on the memorial list. Confronting death, we realise the preciousness of life. We recognise how much we have to treasure what we have, and learn to live a fulfilling life. Religion teaches many insights to help us live a good life-a life that gives us the feeling of security, happiness and fulfilment.
I recently saw a t-shirt which proclaimed "Life's short, Play hard." Life is too short. Too short to hold a grudge. Too short to worry. Too short to play it safe. Life is too short to work all day. We could each come up with our own best ending for this slogan! While I have met a few people who have come to the conclusion that they lived a good, long life and were ready to die; more often than not, we want more time. There is always more to do and more to say; there are always unfulfilled dreams and unrealised plans. And that is the sad truth of life more often than not.
The Book of Ecclesiastes expresses this sad truth. Ecclesiastes tries to find lasting happiness in a number of pursuits. But the author soon realises that no matter what we do and no matter what we accomplish, in the end we are all equal in death. Death levels all distinctions. Ecclesiastes warns us that the lover of money never has enough and that no matter what we gain in this world, we leave the world as we came into it, naked and carrying nothing. According to Ecclesiastes, the person who dies with the most toys...is still dead. Although the pursuit of wealth and power does not bring us relief from the fate of all humanity, Ecclesiastes does not go to extremes and counsel poverty or asceticism. Rather, we are encouraged to enjoy the good things in life because God gives us the ability to do so.
"Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God...Enjoy happiness with someone you love, all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun..."
A Talmudic passage underlines the importance of treasuring what we have. According to this teaching, when we face our final judgements after life, we will be asked about what we have done that we should not have done. And we will also be asked about all of the good things that we might have done that we did not do.
Life is too short to ignore its beauty. How many of us eat all of our meals on the run, so that we can not even remember how something tastes ten minutes after we inhaled it? How many of us spend our time with family thinking about work, with our hand on the Blackberry, with our earpieces ready to take the next call that must be more important than whatever we might be doing?
In the end, a good life is not about doing well, it is about doing good. We need to find balance in our lives so that we can devote our lives to doing good, to bringing sanctity into our lives and into the lives of others, to fighting for justice and defending the weak. And when we help others enjoy the blessings of a good life, we come to fully realise and enjoy the blessings in our own life.
In the end, the elusive quality of life, the most important things in our lives, the things that make our lives good, are not really things at all. They are the people who make our lives worth living-the people we love, the people we enjoy life with and the people we care for.
As the financial markets are in turmoil, as the outlook of our retirement plans is in question, many of us are asking ourselves- How will we get by? What do we need to survive? What do we really need-to be happy, safe, fulfilled?
In Jules Verne's novel The Mysterious Island, he tells of five men who escape a Civil War prison camp by hijacking a hot air balloon.
As they rise into the air, they realise that the wind is carrying them over the ocean. Watching their homeland disappear on the horizon, they wonder how much longer the balloon can stay aloft. As the hours pass and the surface of the ocean draws closer, the men decide they must cast overboard some of the weight, for they had no way to heat the air in the balloon. Shoes, overcoats, and weapons are reluctantly discarded, and the uncomfortable aviators feel their balloon rise. But only temporarily.
Soon they find themselves dangerously close to the waves again, so they toss their food. Better to be high and hungry than drown on a full belly! Unfortunately, this, too, is only a temporary solution, and the craft again threatens to lower the men into the sea. One man has an idea: they can tie the ropes that hold the passenger car and sit on those ropes. Then they can cut away the basket beneath them. As they sever the very thing they had been standing on, it drops into the ocean, and the balloon rises.
Not a minute too soon, they spot land. Eager to stand on terra firma again, the five jump into the water and swim to the island. They live, spared because they were able to discern the difference between what was really needed and what was not. The "necessities" they once thought they couldn't live without were the very weights that almost cost them their lives.
In the end, they help each other to survive. They sustain their lives and their friendship.