The Tolling of The Bell

I suppose it had to happen. It does happen. We know it and yet we do not know it, keeping it hidden in our hearts even as the ashen and barren sky outside shows us clearly and unabashedly that it is so.

As I expected, the reactions to my piece yesterday were two-fold. Some people read it and felt uplifted by it. Many others however dismissed me as being foolishly naive and “optimistic”. For those of you who gleaned some sparkling glimmer of hope and goodwill, I thank you.

The truth is that I wrote that article for the same reason I write all of my articles – these are what I am called to write. In various formats and fashions, I have been writing for years before the creation of this blog and while I am grateful for the attention and remuneration it sometimes provides, I write first and foremost because I must. And while I have dabbled at writing fiction, the truth is that what I am compelled to spill forth on these pages is the truth.

There are very few homeless or permanently vagrant people here in Romania but there is one who lives in my neighborhood. He regularly stations himself outside of a nearby shop. And whatever the cause of his coming to be there, whatever circumstances in life led him to be outside in the cold, even he is not alone. The street dogs in the area know him and sometimes pass a quiet hour or two with him. Local people visit him and give him food and drink, and sometimes money. I even once saw a camera crew filming and talking with him. This man, in his downtrodden rags and seemingly with neither home nor family, he is not alone.

Today as I returned home from an expedition, I saw a large number of police vehicles outside of my bloc. Inside the main entrance, laid out on the floor, one arm cast out and the other gently folded on his chest, was one of my neighbors. There was tape on the floor. There were lights in position. There were small markers with numbers. A technician was leaning over him, taking pictures with a very expensive camera.

A few hours later I was in the corner shop, talking to my neighbors, all of them with long faces. Dar nu a chinuit – but at least he didn’t suffer – this was the verdict. No media, no news articles, no entourages of political celebrities, no limousines, no reporters, as there are this day on the other side of town. No. For this was a no one, an ordinary man who had an ordinary life, who went to check his mail, suffered from an ordinary medical ailment and came to the end of his days at the foot of the stairs in my building.

I wrote and I spoke the truth in my heart a few weeks ago, as I felt the pendulum brush past me, startling in its intimacy. I know from an indirect source that the young woman was successfully revived and suffered no permanent injury. But today, on a cold, gray December afternoon, the reaper took its toll and my neighbor came to the end of his journeys amongst us. There will be no happy endings because his story is now over.

There is an old apocryphal story about the Buddha, that his father was a powerful prince and that he kept his son hidden away inside a palace so that he would never know what aging, disease and death were. For such a person, shielded from such things and surrounded by comfort and luxury, being a positive, optimistic person would be a natural result.

But I am not the Buddha and neither are any of you. I live here in the same gritty, noisy, honking reality as all of you do. I am not the person I am today because I was shielded from the grinding realities of life but in spite of them. Nearly every pain and problem and suffering you have ever experienced, I have too, and in some cases I have seen and endured much worse. I have been to places few humans dare to tread, some of them so blatantly evil that I cannot even talk about them, nor write about them. They are my cross to bear.

I am a positive person in spite of this. I am a positive person because it is the only realistic way to be. I am a positive person because one day the bell will toll for me, and whether it is in a blaze of righteous glory, or an ignominious collapse at the bottom of the stairs or a gentle drifting away in my sleep, one day we all will reach the end of the line.

So what is it then, that we shall all do, between this day and that, between the day we emerged wet and screaming from our mothers until the day it all ends? That is a question for the philosophers and the priests. But it is also a question for each one of us. Whatever the wise ones and the prophets and the ministers and the experts and our friends and family say, ultimately it is our life to live. Every day we wake up it is our choice, our vote, our will, our action to make.

My friends – may I call you that? My friends, whatever your problems, whatever it is that is hurting you, whatever it is that pains you and causes you to suffer, remember only this – today you are alive. And tomorrow, if we are lucky, we will have a new day to live. And every day is a chance to follow your heart, to laugh with your friends, to indulge in the pleasures of the mind and body and spirit, and to turn aside from squandering the little time we have with petty complaints, anger, whining and indulging in negativity.

In the end, as they say, all of your problems will come to an end, one way or another. That, at least, is guaranteed. So if you can, listen to my words for a moment, pause for my neighbor whom you never knew, and hold onto the good things in life, for they are fleeting enough as it is.

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.

-John Donne, Meditation 17

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