Boomerangs & Balloons
Posted on February 18, 2010 by Blake Leath
In his bittersweet swan song, The Last Lecture, Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch shared countless pearls of wisdom about living and dying. Ten months later, he died at the age of 48 from pancreatic cancer, but not before saying, "You have to decide if you're a Tigger or an Eeyore."
Every hour and minute of every day is difficult and tragic for someone somewhere. I've touched briefly on the subject of grief over the years, but paraphrasing now Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, "What perspective does a WASPy, middle class, opportunity-fortunate American have?" Perhaps very little...as little as a Princeton and Yale Law School graduate might have.
A few statistics to set a baseline for 'perspective:'
1. 876,213 children were reported missing in the United States in 2000 (FBI National Crime Information Center). Remarkably, the NCIC estimates that kidnappings comprise less than 2% of all violent crimes against juveniles reported to police. This means that a lot worse is likely happening than we know.
2. In the summer of 1931, between 1 million and 4 million Chinese died in a flood.
3. In 2004, approximately 230,000 innocents died in what is known as the Indian Ocean earthquake.
4. An estimated 230,000 more died 35 days ago in Haiti.
5. Between 1348 and 1350, 'The Black Death' pandemic killed an estimated 30-60% of Europe's population.
The list of such atrocities, from those perpetrated upon the most innocent among us (children) by the most evil among us (ill and/or wicked adults) to natural disasters, is a long one. For all intents and purposes, it might as well be infinite.
As I glance through my last 155 blog entries, it appears that I've written about loss or death perhaps a dozen times. Generally, I strive to encourage. So why am I periodically moved to consider end-of-life issues, wisdom for my daughter, or matters as seemingly vainglorious as 'legacy?'
As someone who writes often and has for many years, writing becomes -- in retrospect -- a bit like a Rorschach inkblot...reflecting (obviously) one's thoughts and emotions. The same is true for all of us, of course, though I doubt very seriously that busy people proofread, for the sake of comparison, archived emails as much as I do this blog. What glutton would?
I share these uncharacteristically personal and intimate thoughts for a reason. Yes, there is a point. I am going somewhere with this seemingly random stream of consciousness...hang in there.
This has been a difficult week, but only temperately compared to the grievous losses sustained by two dear families who -- quite unexpectedly and most certainly prematurely -- watched as beloved individuals died in their arms.
The pain at 'ground zero' is always the greatest, fading more forgivingly as it ripples out and away from the epicenter like waves in a pond. 9/11...the loss of a child...a sibling...a parent...a friend...we all know loss too well, undoubtedly experiencing our own round in the ring and logically concluding this tour with the ultimate reckoning.
While the sum of all losses occurring across the globe is unfathomable, unimaginable, incomprehensible...we each have our very personal and proximate narrative of loss. As budding storytellers in grammar school, we are educated to start with something smallish: a child is born, a boy hurts his knee, a girl falls in love, a family seeks a better life. And from such seeds, we extrapolate. The story bounces along, characters come and go, things happen. On the way, the reader is drawn in, drawn down, drawn up. And perhaps at the conclusion thinks, "Wow. That's me." Or, "That's humankind."
I cannot wrap my head around famine and disease in Africa. But I can wrap my hand around the hand of Kiki, the seven-year-old boy in Haiti who emerged from the concrete eight days after the quake. Or I can hug him, or pay for his medical attention, or feed him, or promise to pay for his education, or all of the above.
So rather than minimizing my own life experience because it is too WASPy, simply lamenting the woes of nearly 1 million U.S. children who are reported missing each year, or throwing my hands up in despair because I do not know how I can possibly help Africa...I should instead ask myself something manageable like, "Will I be an Eeyore or a Tigger?"
This mindset applies not only to the most important matters of life and death, but also to the routine and trivial: Will I whine when my pizza has too much tomato sauce? Or when the man with the world's longest torso places himself before me in the movie theater? Or when the parking slot closest to the entrance is 'stolen' by a spritelike teenager in a Porsche?
No, I shall not.
Eeyore would, but I will not.
I may not be the archetypal Tigger that Pausch embodied, but I cannot, in good conscience, be an Eeyore.
Eeyores are over-populated already, and it would be a crime to enlarge their number.
My own take is this: We rarely know even at the end whether we released Boomerangs or Balloons throughout our life, but no matter. Both were meant to fly.
Sometimes I aim high and throw hard -- and life reciprocates. I give love, and love comes back. I study and work hard, and the world opens her arms. I discipline my child, and she thanks me later by living a life replete with joy and grace and contribution.
But sometimes, no matter how high I aim or how hard I throw, there is no echo...no feedback. Just silence. Or tragedy I cannot understand. The love I give...gone. The sacrifice I make...gone. The job, the purpose, the savings, the home, the child, the dream, the freedom, the country...gone.
Whether a flood, an earthquake, a plague, or an intimate casualty -- we can only comprehend so much.
But we must, and we shall.
And when we're gone, so will those behind us and those behind them.
Humankind is resilient and people, particularly Tiggers, are wired to move forward. And the rest must be encouraged to rise to their feet, dust themselves off, and soldier on. After all, we're not always Tiggers or always Eeyores -- these 'labels' are really just descriptions of behavior...so from time to time, we're one or the other. You'd be amazed at how contagious Tiggerness is. (Or Eeyoreness, for that matter.) Such things are viral and communicable (like clapping, laughing, and crying), as has been proven anecdotally, empirically, and statistically more times than you might care to know.
The majority of people are inclined to inquire, seek, and find that boomerang you threw into the fray all those years ago. Or that balloon you released in the stillness of night, the one they eventually untangle from the tree halfway across the state.
So don't worry about what life will bring or doubt whether you can make a difference. The last move, whether a boomerang or a ballon, is the same: let go.
The ripple effects of your life are best recounted by those who succeed you, for they will tell your story personally just as I am generally.
If you lived estimably, there will be those who remember. Who will wish they could call you, hug you, see your smile. And they will weep at their loss but rejoice in your life.
It's one of the greatest ironies in life's orchard: The fruit only ripens when you leave the grove.
So do the very best you can with all you've got for as long as you're given -- and embrace joyfully the realization that those behind you will indeed experience your harvest.