Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Britt’s death is a reminder about composing a life

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I had just returned from seeing the movie ‘‘The Bucket List” when I picked up The Gazette and read about the eulogy for state Sen. Gwendolyn Britt.

Among other things, funerals are a time for deep reflection. Her life is a metaphor for many over the centuries.

The title of a book by Mary Catherine Bateson that I read several years ago entitled ‘‘Composing a Life” came to mind.

Before reading this book, when I thought of composing, my mind turned to music or writing, not to life itself. But to a large extent this is what we do by the choices we make, what we do with the choices made for us by parents, other adults and the limits⁄barriers set by society.

A retiring Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was asked by an interviewer how he wanted to be remembered. He responded, ‘‘He did the best he could with what he had.”

Britt, like Marshall and many others before, did the best she could with what she had in a society that was violently racist when she was coming of age.

Early in her life she stared the tragedy of racism and the imperfections of America in the eye without blinking and set about changing things, without giving in to despair and pessimism. She understood philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said, ‘‘Even tragedy is an affirmation of life” and presents and opportunity.

But Marshall resonates with me better than anything else I have heard lately. Am I doing the best I can with what I have? Are you?

We are reminded that the best route to a full satisfying life is to be of service to others, something good and bigger than ourselves.

There is a popular sub-genre of horror stories about the ‘‘living dead.” Joseph Campbell, the late professor of mythology whom millions watched on the PBS series ‘‘The Power Of Myth;” Carl Jung, a pioneering psychotherapist; and Abraham Maslow, father of humanistic psychology, have taught me that these stories come from deep within the human psyche.

They reflect a fear of natural death before really experiencing meaningful, vital living with optimism and a sense of adventure and possibilities.

Many, if not most of us, in this affluent society live in ‘‘quiet desperation,” fearing that we are indeed among the ‘‘living dead,” dead to our humanity and potential, dead to the adventure that life can be and, consequently, dead to the humanity and potential of others, dead to the possibilities of a full life, embracing it with all of its joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy. Affluence does not fill the deepest needs of the soul and spirit.

Sen. Britt started her opposition to oppressions as a student at Howard University, which raises the issue of the importance of education in liberating and awakening us to potential and possibilities. Philosopher Socrates and his contemporaries were among the first to realize that the evil of ignorance is mental, emotional, psychological, spiritual and intellectual enslavement, putting us among the ‘‘living dead.”

You have probably heard about the two shoe salesmen who were sent to a distant developing country to look for markets. One wired back ‘‘No market, no potential, no possibilities. No one wears shoes.” The other one wired back, ‘‘Market potential and possibilities unlimited because no one wears shoes.”

I have always thought that this was an apt and empowering way to look at the world.

Sen. Britt and many like her down through the ages could have said that there is too much to do, change is impossible, let me earn a living and watch television.

Now and then I try to write my obituary in my diary. This is an exercise all should try. How would yours read?

We should also continue to ask: Have I chosen to dwell among the ‘‘living dead” or am I still learning and growing? Am I vital? Vital people, in the words of Campbell, vitalize. They vitalize themselves, their immediate family and surroundings, their work place, and their micro and macro communities — just as Sen. Britt did.

Van Caldwell, a lawyer, lives in Kettering. He can be e-mailed at