Whenever I consider the metaphysical concepts of death and aging, I like to think of the story of Buddha’s enlightenment. Residing in Northern India from the 6th to 4th century B.C., Gautama was once an opulent prince of South Nepal (“Buddha.”). As such, he lived a life of tremendous luxury and personal comfort, completely oblivious to the trials and tribulations that lay just outside the palace doors. One day, however, the young prince decided to become better acquainted with his future subjects and visit the capital city. As he made his way through the bustling streets, Gautama came across an elderly man, withered by age and disease. Having never grasped the concept of mortality and the inevitability of death, Gautama was shocked by his appalling discovery.
However, upon being suddenly seized with a passion for knowledge, Gautama left the comforts of his palace, choosing instead the perilous path to enlightenment. While I could never claim to know more about life’s inherent truths than Gautama, I’ve never been a stranger to the concept of mortality. I’ve never shrieked at the sight of a wrinkled visage, nor I have I been stunned by the presence of the ill. As a child, I was often exposed to the presence of the elderly. So the idea that all life has an expiry date has never been very new to me.
And yet, the potency of this knowledge has only grown stronger with time and experience. The evanescent, but beautiful nature of youth and life really struck me when I began volunteering at the dementia unit at a senior assisted living center.
As a volunteer, I perform a variety of helpful tasks to make the residents’ lives a little bit easier. This includes gentle back massages, engaging in conversation, solving puzzles together, playing board games, doing their nails, reading to them, using the hand-under-hand technique to feed them, and fetching them things from their rooms.
One day, Miss Ester was shivering slightly from the full blast of the air conditioning. However, being bound to her wheelchair and unable to communicate, she couldn’t express her evident discomfort. Recognizing the situation, one of the caregivers gently touched my shoulder and asked me to run to Miss Ester’s room to get a blanket.
Glad to oblige her, I quickly made my way to Miss Ester’s room before pausing at her front door. What I saw nearly knocked the breath out of me. It was a collection of Miss Ester’s pictures from her youth.
Having only seen Miss Ester with glazed eyes, fixated on a distant oblivion, I was startled to see them suddenly bright and in focus. Wearing a stylish sunhat and hefting a cherry red purse, she must have been around twenty in the photograph. I looked to the photo right beside it to see a young Miss Ester standing with her church choir, grinning broadly as she did so. Although I couldn’t confer with the woman in the image, I knew that she was intelligent, genial, and independent. I knew that she was the kind of woman who was invited to all sorts of social occasions just for her presence. Observing the lustrous black locks that tumbled to her shoulders, I was suddenly shocked by the image of the few gray wisps that now remained.
At that moment, I thought about how any of us might share Miss Ester’s fate. In spite of how invulnerable, exuberant, and immortal we may feel at present, it is all but a happy illusion. A fleeting virtue of youth.
When I first had this existential revelation, I was plagued by a sense of grief, anger, and apathy. What’s the point of it all if we’re all destined to go at some point? Why bother dreaming about attaining a certain profession or bettering my status in life? How does it matter anyway if it’s so short?
But after several hours of agonizing introspection, I came to a new conclusion. It is because of the immense unpredictability and brevity of life that we must strive to achieve and better ourselves. We have to make the most out of whatever time we’ve been given, so that when we’ve reached the perpetual fatigue of old age, we can say we’ve done it all.