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What marks out the life well lived?

I have spent a lot of time in hospital lately, with a patient close to me.

On one of the days I was walking up a staircase and stopped halfway up. At the top was the intensive care unit I was heading to; at the bottom was the maternity wing. Up there, faces were sombre and drawn, as many of those inside were facing end-of-life situations. A floor below, there were jubilant smiles as new life was brought into the world.

From this vantage point I could see it clearly: the cycle of life.

It occurred to me that some of those babies being born downstairs will be upstairs in a few decades time, as their time, too, comes to an end. At that moment, more babies will be emerging on the lower floor, ready to keep the flow of life going.

Our lives on earth have two key events: a beginning and an ending. Because these are such dramatic occurrences, we spend a lot of time focused on recording births and deaths. We forgot that those are just the movements of a door; what matters is what a person does during the life, during that brief visit to this earth. What matters is between the time spent in the decades moving from one floor to the other.

What does matter in a life? Again, our shallowness of thought takes us to the wrong things. We look for meaning in how famous or well-known a person became; how much material accumulation was achieved; how much power was exercised over others. Really? That’s all we want to do, to become, to record, in our journey between the two floors?

There is so much that is good and meaningful that a person can be in their journey on this planet – if only we can open our eyes to see it. We must learn to look away from glitter and lucre and makeup and see what really matters. And here is my thought for what that might be: a life well lived is not a life lived for itself.

Have you not encountered such lives? They don’t need to grab the headlines, but they are right there amongst us. There is a kind of person whose unstated mission is to be there for others. To be there for a spouse, giving comfort, support and encouragement for decades. To be there for children, bestowing education and wisdom and opportunity. To be there for grandchildren, always giving them a place to gather and play and enjoy their childhoods.

Some go even further than their immediate families. They are there for friends, relatives, employees, community members, fellow parishioners. They are there even for complete strangers, because their humanity tells them everyone matters, and everyone must be helped when it is possible to help. Many look like they are doing the giving thing, please note; but there is a difference. Only a precious few do it with utmost sincerity, through deeply held values, with no wish of getting anything back in return.

If giving is one of the hallmarks of living well, then humility is a second one. A truly wise person recognizes his own insignificance; knows that she is just a collection of molecules, soon to be dispersed; refrains from letting the ego indulge in fantasies about centrality and permanence. We are all visitors; we will all leave; and if we are not careful, it may not matter at all that we ever lived. Those who know this shy away from applause and accolades. They do their work because it must be done, not because it must be seen to be done.

A third quality that sets people apart: the ability to strive and make do with what one has, rather than always being in a state of envious agitation. Some of us start off with more than others; some have natural gifts and endowments that provide an advantage. A genuine achiever, though, is not the one who complains about unfairness, or breaks every rule and law in order to be like the advantaged. The genuine achiever simply gets on with it and does what is possible. Cheerfully and determinedly, feeling neither inferior nor superior to others, simply making do with a smile and a good word.

Farewell, then, to Narendra Rajani, my patient on that upper floor, who had all these qualities and more. You have been there for so many for so long, and now you must rest. May many more lives beginning their journeys on the floor below become like yours.

(Sunday Nation, 26 August 2018)

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