The life well-lived

In Praise of the Great Bull Walrus

by Alden Nowlan

I wouldn’t like to be one
of the walrus people
for the rest of my life
but I wish I could spend
one sunny afternoon
lying on the rocks with them.
I suspect it would be similar
to drinking beer in a tavern
that caters to longshoremen
and won’t admit women.
We’d exchange no
cosmic secrets. I’d merely say,
“How yuh doin’ you big old walrus?”
and the nearest of
the walrus people
would answer,
“Me? I’m doin’ great.
How yuh doin’ yourself,
you big old human being, you?”

How good it is to share
the earth with such creatures
and how unthinkable it would have been
to have missed all this
by not being born:
a happy thought, that,
for not being born is
the only tragedy
that we can imagine
but need never fear.

Have you seen the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”? If you haven’t, it would be hard to miss its presence around Christmas time. It has attained the revered status of “Christmas classic”, along with innumerable versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as well as some more modern offerings. For me, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has become a tradition. One way or another, I – and as many family members as I can talk into taking the time (some actually want to join me) – sit down for the annual screening.

While some might be ready to leave Christmas behind for another year, I was reminded of this favourite movie of mine when I attended the funeral of an old friend’s mother this morning. This is a family I have known quite literally since birth so, as you might expect, I’ve always thought I “knew” them.

When the funeral mass was over, a member of the Catholic Women’s League (an organization to which my friend’s mother had belonged for 62 years) came to the lectern and delivered what was, in essence, a very brief eulogy of sorts. It recounted the speaker’s experiences with _____ throughout the years and both the affection and the regard were obvious. I found it quite touching.

And remarkable, in the original sense of the word: deserving notice and worthy of comment. This was a life lived within a circle of family and of friends that might not have gained any universal notice but, to those who knew her, hers was a life well-lived. It involved traits that we value such as loyalty, determination, dedication, good humour, compassion and, ultimately, love. She was a presence in the world to all those who knew her and she will be missed, certainly, but, equally important, she will be remembered with fondness and with love distilled in memory.

I’ve often wondered why “It’s a Wonderful Life” has the power over me that it does. No matter how many times I watch it, it still gets me. George’s struggle with creeping despair, with frustration, with trying to figure out what his life signifies articulates something deeply human for me. I experience a range of emotions while watching but I always end in the same place: grateful to have my chance at living.

We live in an age where “remarkable” has come to mean “outstanding”, and, in order to be outstanding, we need to be noticed, a fact which goes a long way toward explaining why so many “put themselves out there” on the internet. If someone notices, a validation of sorts is gained. If we have enough “likes” for our Facebook post or our tweet we have the proof we need that we matter in an often sterile, digital age.

I feel this funeral I attended provided me with some insight into my love for “It’s a Wonderful Life”. For all that the central character, George Bailey, is remarkable within the context of the movie itself, it is his brother and others who have all the apparent success and renown. George, in many ways insignificant in his own eyes, is anything but for the friends and family who surround him. Similar to my friend’s mother, the most remarkable thing he did was live his life well.

While the details of what that means for the individual are just that – individual, the broad outlines are available to us in many ways: through friends, loved ones and, occasionally, through the “outstanding” who make their presence known in the broader world, to name a few. All of us, though, live most of our lives in the spotlight of those closest to us. Surely, that is the best place to shine.

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