Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. –Victor K. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
My grandmother passed away earlier this afternoon. She had Alzheimer’s Disease, and had been declining for some time, and a few weeks ago made the decision to stop eating. So it was a matter of when, not if. My mom was able to fly back to Boston last weekend to be with her and say goodbye. My uncle was there with her when she died. I tried to talk with her on the phone, but she wasn’t able to hear or understand me. My mom told me she read her one of my blog posts, about taking advantage of the time you have when you have it, and she became more aroused, and squeezed my mom’s hand. She wasn’t in any pain, and lived to the ripe old age of 92. All in all, not a bad way to go.
On an unrelated note (unrelated to my grandmother, but related to a theme I want to communicate), I wanted to share with you two stories. They’re not good stories, so be forewarned.
Story 1: A few weeks ago when I was working in the Emergency Department, a patient was brought in who was a homeless man who had just been injured by a hit and run driver. It was a Sunday afternoon, and witnessed by many people. The driver was a blond woman in a Mercedes, and hit the man while he was crossing the street before speeding off. Bystanders only saw 3 letters of her license plate, which was not enough for her to be found.
Story 2: A year and a half ago, when I was on my surgery rotation at LA County Hospital, I had a patient who was also the victim of a hit and run driver. She was walking in downtown LA with her husband when a SUV inexplicably, but purposefully, went off the road and ran both of them over, multiple times, before driving away.
It was surmised by police that they were mistaken for someone else and that the incident was gang-related. The woman was brought to LA County with massive injuries and in critical condition. She kept asking us where her husband was, but he had been brought by ambulance to a different hospital and had already died.
I brought these stories up because dealing with death has made me think about life and all the choices we make, which I’m sure we reflect on when our end draws near. Seeing these things happen was also a little traumatizing and I also just wanted an opportunity to talk about it. When I see or hear of stories like this, it’s hard to imagine what cruelty and irresponsibility motivated the person behind it.
My instinct is to oversimplify and imagine that these are just bad people, and that the average person isn’t capable of something like that. The reality, though, is a lot more complicated. There are not good and bad people as much as there are people who do things that are good and bad.
The people above did really horrible things that were witnessed, but likely felt anonymous because they weren’t identified or caught. But they went on with their day, and went home, and went to the bathroom before going to bed to wash their face or brush their teeth and looked in the mirror. Who do you think they saw?
Only you can judge your character, and that can only be done when you are looking at yourself honestly and reflectively. What other people think doesn’t matter, because the person you show to others is only one side of your true self. It doesn’t matter what other people think about you. It matters what you think about yourself. When you look in the mirror, who is there, looking back at you?
My grandmother was a good person, but like any of us, she wasn’t perfect. She didn’t always treat my mom very well, mostly because she didn’t know how to handle such a smart daughter with high ambitions, at a time when a lot of parents aspired for their daughter to marry well and go to secretarial school. But she had good intentions and did the best she could with what she knew at the time.
When my grandmother died, she was loved, and was with family and in the hearts of family. She made mistakes, but had acted in a way that was congruent with her values. I have a feeling that when she died she still felt some guilt about her relationship with my mom, but it doesn’t matter because my mom had long forgiven her. She wasn’t looking in the mirror in those last moments, but her goodness was reflecting back to her in all the warmth and love of the people around her and thinking of her.
We are all imperfect creatures, with limited knowledge and perspective. You can only do the best you can with what you know at the time. Your knowledge and insight are ever evolving. But you can’t ever expect less from yourself than the best you can do. You should not forgive or accept irresponsibility in yourself when you know better.
In the end, it’s only going to be you, reflecting on yourself and your life, thinking about the relationships you’ve formed, the legacy you created, all the things you did and didn’t do. It’s okay to make mistakes (lord knows I make mistakes constantly), but you want to make the kind of mistakes you can forgive yourself for. Your life is a series of opportunities to have right intention and right effort. You want to be happy with who you see in the mirror.