The Deathbed Test
Birth and death are the boundaries of our lives. They bracket our lives and confine our plans. They limit our vision. They constrain our actions. They are the two horizons of our lives. We can never look beyond them despite our urgent desire to do so. We can only be modern men and women, residents of the earth certainly, but also residents of the twenty-first century. We are limited by the possibilities offered to us by the cultural buffet as it exists at this time. For all the talk about returning to the classic values of our hallowed ancestors, such a return is impossible. We were not born into their world but ours. We can read history books but we can never know what our ancestors and their contemporaries really felt and thought on the inside.
What must it have felt like to be an ancient Egyptian crawling before Pharaoh’s throne? In our day, we cannot imagine bowing before a living human god, but an ancient Egyptian would never have doubted for a moment that Pharaoh was god on earth. We cannot imagine what Pharaoh himself must have felt like, knowing that he was in fact a god, the only living human god, descended from gods, and that no one anywhere on earth was his equal, much less his superior.
Imagine that you have been invited to the White House to advise the President. How would you feel if you walked into the Oval Office to find the President seated on a golden throne? How would you respond to seeing the President’s entire cabinet, the Majority Leader of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House crawling before him on all fours, foreheads pressed to the floor? What would you do when the High Priest pointed to you and commanded, “Kneel and crawl before the throne of the living God, Commander of the Moon and the Stars, Son of Jehovah, General of Triumphant Armies, He Who Commands the Crops to Grow, before Whom the earth trembles, the Commander in Chief!” Would you be thrilled and terrified to be in a room with God Himself? Or would you think that some terrorist must have put LSD in the water cooler?
We cannot feel the feelings that Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton must have felt as they faced each other in their famous duel, in which Hamilton was fatally wounded. We do not feel in our hearts the concept of honor that they had in theirs or the burning shame of having one’s honor questioned. We have not built our very manhood around the code duello that governed affairs of honor in those days. Surely both Hamilton and Burr would be contemptuous of our modern-day duels, fought in court between lawyers who will fight for anyone who pays them. They would be disgusted, I imagine, with our custom of settling affairs of honor (slander, libel, etc.) by ordering the loser to pay the winner a large sum of money, as if honor could be bought and sold. We cannot imagine what it would feel like to prefer death to declining a challenge.
How would you feel if a coworker came to your office with a pair of pistols and said that your criticism of his department’s sales performance was an insult to his honor, that you are a liar and a coward, and that he demanded satisfaction: either a groveling public apology or a duel? Would your first thought be that death is far, far preferable to being called a liar or a coward? Would you choose one of the pistols he offered and silently walk with him to the courtyard behind your office building? Would you stand with your back to his, pace off ten paces, and turn to face him? Then, with startled cigarette smoking coworkers as witnesses, would you exchange shots with him until one of you fell? Or would you dial 911 with trembling fingers instead?
Certainly my response to such a confrontation would be to agree to the duel and then - when he was looking the other way - to knock him out with a paperweight from my desk. I would probably tie him up with the phone cord before calling the police. Later, I would testify that the poor man was clearly insane and recommend that he be locked away in an underfunded, poorly run state institution for a long, long time.
We do not act like our ancestors because we are not like our ancestors in thought or emotion. We were not born into their culture. The cultural buffet then contained a very different set of choices than it does now. We do not have the psychological wherewithal to think and feel as they did then.
The feelings and thought patterns of those who lived long ago are lost to us. We can describe how they acted, but we do not have it within us to feel as they felt even though they were humans just like we are. Surely the people who will live in the distant future, generations after we are long dead and gone, will be equally unlike ourselves. They will not think like us or feel like us. The things we write will seem bizarre to them. They will wonder what it must have felt like to be us. They will wonder how they could be descended from beings such peculiar beings as ourselves.
We are isolated in time as well as in space. We cannot see past the boundaries of our lifetimes. It is in that narrow span of years that we must live and thrive because there is no other choice for us. A Machiavellian does not avert his eyes from ugly facts or hard choices. He plays the hand he is dealt to the best of his ability. Look straight at the fact of your mortality and deal with it.
Find your birth year in the chart above, and to the right of it you will see the estimated year of your death. How much longer will you probably live? What can you reasonably accomplish - in that too-short span of time - which will make your life seem worthwhile in the end, from the the perspective of your deathbed? It does not matter what your goals are as long as:
1. They are truly your goals
2. They are truly achievable by you in the time you have remaining in your lifetime
3. They pass the deathbed test