A RARE TRIBUTE TO DEATH FROM A SPINOZIST
The Days of Awe, as the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known among Jews, are centered around the concepts of repentance and renewal. Sometimes, when they give talks during this period, rabbis concentrate on the former of these themes, and other times they discuss the latter. Yesterday evening, at the concluding service of Yom Kippur, I heard a rabbi devote his entire talk to the idea of renewal. And he concentrated on what could be taken to be nature’s foremost means of generating renewal – death.
You don’t hear too many tributes to the Grim Reaper at synagogue. You hear even fewer in the Spiro household. My dad, the family philosopher, may not have been steeped in Spinoza, but he internalized the Spinozist line that “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death and his wisdom is a meditation on life.” Last evening, though, we were told by the rabbi that without death, we can’t enjoy life as we know it – where the new is truly different than the old, and the power of time requires us to act now or perhaps forever lose the opportunity.
Anyone who has seen the movie Groundhog Day knows what life could be like if we could live a single day forever. For all of the central character’s accomplishments – saving lives, developing talents, you name it – the moviemaker had us all convinced that we would trade such a storybook life for our own, as long as we were able to spend our limited time on this planet with a loving fellow-traveler. That is not to say that mortality is objectively preferable to immortality, but only that each of us has made our peace with it. Our ideal is simply to be the best “mere mortal” we can be given the constraints. Anything more would seem … well, disrespectful to the civilization we’ve developed, one that involves the challenges of living well, dying gracefully, and remembering those to whom we owe a debt of gratitude – mortal and immortal.
Generally, at a High Holiday service, our thoughts turn to thanking the one immortal of whom we are aware. The word “Jew” means “thankful.” It comes from the decision of our matriarch, Leah, to name her son, Judah, saying, “This time I will give thanks to Adonai” (Genesis 29:35). But yesterday evening, the rabbi wanted to take a moment to praise the essence of mortality, and he did so largely by quoting the words of a fellow mortal. This is a man we’ve all heard a lot about lately because he died, with tremendous notoriety, earlier during these same Days of Awe. I am sure you will recognize him by name when you read the following words, which come from a commencement address he gave at my alma mater (Stanford) in 2005.
“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, some day you'll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
“Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
“About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for ‘prepare to die’. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.
“I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now.
“This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope it's the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful, but purely intellectual, concept:
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but some day not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
As a Luddite, you’d think I would curse the ground Steve Jobs walked on. It is largely due to his products that I often feel as alienated from this society as I do. Believe me, I couldn’t tell you the difference between an i-pod, an i-pad and an i-phone, and I’m not apologizing for it either. But, ironically, for the same reason that I am a Luddite – valuing what is known as “humanity” over what is known as “technology” – I cannot help but appreciate what drove Steve Jobs to be the person he was. Sure, he loved technology. And yet by all accounts, he was also a warm, caring, unassuming person. What’s more, when all was said and done, the epitaph of this college-dropout-turned-billionaire could aptly include that immortal Frank Sinatra lyric, “I did it my way.” I love that quality in a person. In fact, it is precisely that same quality that most endeared me to another celebrity who passed away during these Days of Awe.
I will allow those of you technophiles who are “Jew”-ish to thank Steve Jobs for all that he has given you personally. For me, I will reserve my more heartfelt thanks to a fellow Jew who died, of all days, on Yom Kippur (in other words, yesterday).
Al Davis grew up in Brooklyn and never did outgrow his Brooklyn accent. His football team was called the Raiders, but pronounced “Raiduhs” by any true fan of the team – even though they’ve never been based outside of California. It is only respectful to pronounce that name the way Al did because Al Davis WAS the Raiders.
There is no team in American sports more associated with a single human being than the Raiders were associated with Al Davis. He once coached the team, came to co-own and then own the team for decades, and micromanaged the team in virtually every respect that involved the product on the field. You could say that his obsession with this team was positively Ahabian. Indeed, many would say that he was willing to break virtually every rule and moral principle imaginable in order to help that team win. It was a great formula when he was young and ahead of the curve, and a horrible formula when he was old and the game had passed him by. But again, win or lose, at least nobody can deny Al Davis that same epitaph referenced above – he did it his way to the brutal end. And his way can be summed up in a single immortal line: “Just win, baby!”
Nobody in their right mind has been rooting for Steve Jobs to meet his maker. But I know a number of Raiders fans who have been rooting for Al Davis’ demise for years. The same team that he built to greatness in the 60s, 70s and early 80s has long since been run into the ground, thanks to his meddling. I suspect that there is a whole generation of football fans out there who associate Al Davis with incompetence, if not insanity. More recently, he has been nicknamed the Crypt Keeper, because … let’s just say his face hasn’t aged well. In short, Al Davis has become a punch line – and as for the joke, there are many to choose from.
But that was the old, living Al Davis. The new, dead Al Davis deserves better and will surely get what he deserves. For there is something else about death we should praise – her ennobling quality. Stated simply, nothing dignifies like death.
If you don’t believe me, just turn on ESPN or the NFL network over the next few days. What do you bet that these networks will assemble a group of Davis’ friends and admirers to explain precisely what made the man great? Here’s a man who moved his franchise not once but twice, but what do you bet he’ll be toasted by his friends for his “loyalty”? Here’s a man who made one crazy personnel move after another and whose team hasn’t had a winning season since 2002, but what do you bet we’ll hear that as a football mind, his was second to none? The fact is that mortals can be complex figures, and the same person who exhibits disloyalty in one respect can exhibit extreme loyalty in another, just like the same person who exhibits brilliance at one time in his life can manifest idiocy in another. When you die, unless you’re a truly evil figure, you get to have the good times and the good qualities remembered much more than the bad. It’s the least the living can do for you.
I grew up loving Al Davis because (a) he looked so much like the folks in my dad’s family, who also came from Brooklyn, (b) he never sucked up to the establishment or pretended to be anything other than a football guy, and (c) he allowed his players to beat to their own irreverent drummers as long as they fought hard to win football games. Long before Sarah Palin called herself a “maverick,” Al Davis was the real deal. He looked at the fat cats who ran his industry and gave them all the middle finger. And just like the rappers in LA thought that was pretty friggen cool, so did I – and I grew up in the mean streets of Bethesda, Maryland. To this day, I still think that if you grew up in the 60s and 70s and didn’t think the old Raiders were cooler than the other side of the pillow, there’s something seriously wrong with you. And that “cool” trickled down from the top. The tone was set by Al Davis.
So there you have it. Two men died this past week. One is universally beloved. The other is thought of as a bit of a freak. Yet perhaps their most dominant characteristic is the same. They both dared to be themselves, and they encouraged that same quality in others.
Jobs and Davis leave behind them roughly seven billion people, few of whom were nearly as successful in making their own marks. But we all can learn from their example. The High Holidays are over, but if we played our cards right, the lessons of these holidays can remain for a full year. We repent and seek renewal. We repent for such things as the willingness to waste our lives by living someone else’s. We seek renewal by recognizing what it is we truly want to achieve in life, and then steeling ourselves to ensure that these goals come to fruition. Jobs did it. Davis did it. And you can do it too. Just let the prospect of death give you that kick in the pants that you need. And then, just LIVE, baby!