GET YOUR DEATH SONG READY SAID THE SHAWNEES
David Arthur Walters
History is a mistake as far as many people are concerned. I think Albert Camus said something to the effect that losses are best known through the longing for what did not occur. That is true for many people who wish they had done more with their lives. They long for what they wanted to occur but did not occur; therefore, for them, history is a record of mistakes. Needless to say, those who were educated to believe in free will feel responsible for those mistakes, thus when they long for what did not occur, they suffer from bad conscience or guilt.
I have heard that many older people get bitter. I am not bitter, yet, I think I might drink the bitter tea lest I become bitter. As I age, I feel increasingly disappointed with every memory of the past. I wonder, is my disappointment due to an idealization of my self that I held in the past and failed to realize it in fact? Do I suffer from past illusions about myself now that their realization has become clearly impossible because my time is running out?
Alas, my past desire to be something other than I was at the time might have been realized if only I had pursued my dream long enough. I thought I had plenty of the time to waste then. Now, I believe I would have been a huge success in every endeavor I picked up if only I had not wasted so much time; if only I had kept the ideal or end in mind; if only I had put my nose to the grindstone and had persevered; if only I had forced myself to love people and to be kind to them all the time; if only I had been the ideal man I could have been.
Indeed, in retrospect, it certainly seems that I could have realized the dreams I had back then; therefore my ideals were not mere illusions; therefore I must suffer now until I am a bitter, lonely old man, not necessarily lonely for other people, but lonely for the success I should have been, that I might, like Bob Hope, die a happy death at age 100, with all the good I did coming back to me at the crucial moment. But I didn’t care for Bob Hope – Jack Benny was my favorite. Never mind!
Am I fooling myself retroactively with a present illusion? Do I suffer from a misinterpretation of the past possibilities? If I calculate the probabilities, will I discover that my chances were very slim; that there were overwhelming odds against me; that I was just unlucky; that my failure to realize the impossible dream is really not my fault; that I should give my self a break now for not getting a lucky break; that I should forgive myself for not seizing the opportunities I did have because I was conditioned to avoid them; that I am lucky to just be alive?
An illusion is something objective that almost everyone can see, like the optical illusion of water on the hot pavement due to the refraction of light by the atmosphere. A delusion is something else again, for it is individual and has no basis in what we call reality. A discerning man or woman can see through our illusions, but at least our illusions while had are real illusions, are realities we are all agree on.
Now almost everyone has always agreed that I am an extraordinarily talented man, and that all individuals, especially Americans, can achieve almost anything; therefore, if only I had persevered, if only I had doggedly pursued happiness as generally defined, I would be extraordinarily successful. If only! Everybody agrees! Is the agreement an illusion? No problem, for at least maya is real maya. On the other hand, it could be one of those rare mass delusions. Then I would have no cause to let every memory kick me in the head, I would have no right to take the blame for mistaken history.
Could I really have been otherwise than I was? Could I now be something other than I am? Well, let’s see, I hope so. Alas, here I go again.
These sort of ruminations always bring to my mind Tecumseh’s advice to young braves: get your death song together now and don’t be moaning on your deathbed about what could have been! There does seem to be something pathological about our “modern” predicament of trying to be somebody other that who we are, not even knowing who we are to begin with, then regretting the past. Here we go again.