Earlier today photographer Amir Ali took pictures of me for materials needed to promote Getting Out by Going In as the emerging leader in providing self-corrective education for our nation’s incarcerated men, women and children. As I sat at my computer reviewing hundreds of headshots, I took a long look at the image of the woman on the screen. Rather than focus on which hair was out of place, or the telltale signs of aging around the corners of my eyes, I tried to put myself in a place one hundred years from now, as a distant relative who might stumble across my picture while researching their family lineage. I wondered what they would think about the image they saw. Would the photograph be so outdated that the viewer couldn’t see the depth of my soul or the clothing I spent so much time choosing? One hundred years from now, will the fashion be as drastically different then as it is from what my ancestors wore in 1911?
When I look at photographs, even those from twenty years ago, I spend less time looking at the individual’s face and more time musing on how goofy and awkward they appear. Their hair always looks awful and their clothing looks uncomfortable. Is that the reaction my image might conjure up in the mind of a viewer twenty years from now? Is that what will happen with your own photograph; the picture of yourself you hope will reveal the best image of you?
Each of us hopes to be remembered when it is our time to leave this earth, as if being remembered provides a link for us to linger on earth just a moment or two longer. In the big scheme of things, however, most of us get forgotten within a generation. Your grandchildren, if you have them, are likely to know very little about you and their children may know even less. Ask yourself, what do you know about your great grandfather? Which ancestor was the first to travel to America? Before that, who were your people and from where did they come? Do you know anything significant about their lives? Do you even recall the details of their struggles? Does anyone remember anything more than the general historical brush strokes defining the five or six decades they walked the earth?
The image on the computer screen before me is one of a woman in the year 2011. I see an image of a woman who has faced struggles beyond her ability and yet, somehow, she has overcome them. Will the viewer see that in my eyes? Will they know of my frustrations, my struggles, and the injustices I faced? Will they even wonder what my life was like, what I chose to do on a Saturday morning, or how great my heartbreaks have been along the way? Will they understand the poverty from which I suffered? The education I struggled so hard to obtain? The school loans which will weigh me down for another 25 years? Will anyone see that in the image?
It is inevitable that we all die. It is also inevitable that future generations believe they are so much more advanced than those previous. It is inevitable that our photographs become nothing more than something to laugh at and clothing to criticize. As we become erased from the world’s awareness within 50 years of our passing, what, then, is the importance of our life? Will it matter what car we drive? What home we call ours? The clothes we wear? Will it even matter where we awoke each morning? Will our affiliations and homeboys and neighborhood truly miss us? Who will mourn our absence? Will anyone visit our gravesite year after year?
WHAT IF the finest life we can live is when we focus all our attention on being of service to our immediate environment? WHAT IF our every day efforts were turned toward making wherever we are just a little more peaceful? A little more tidy? A little more friendly? WHAT IF our every day was spent in a little more prayer? Just one more minute of meditation? WHAT IF we sat up straight and walked tall with the knowledge that our life is occurring this very second, not tomorrow and not when we gain our “freedom.”
When I watched my father’s body shrink to the cancer consuming his healthy cells, I was a 24/7 witness to the slipping away of the unimportant. The ability to drive his car, for example. When that became impossible, he reluctantly LET GO. When moving about hi s home with freedom and autonomy became impossible, he reluctantly LET GO. When sitting up in the bed became a multi-person task, he struggled but then LET GO. And toward the end, when mint chocolate chip ice-cream spoon-fed to him no longer tasted good, he LET GO of that, too. At the very end, it was only those seated by his side that mattered and, of that he had no choice but to LET GO. One by one he LET GO of all the things he had held so tightly. In those final moments I believe he came to understand that all he would be taking with him was what he created inside his head and his heart. Everything to which he had a tight grip for so many years was being left behind.
A realization we eventually face is that life goes on and memories of loved ones fade until they disappear with future generations.
Yesterday a family member asked, “When was this picture of Dad taken?”
“2008,” I replied, in full knowledge that in fifty short years no one will even know that the image to which he referred was that of my father.
Will I be missed when it is my turn to LET GO? We are all so busy with “things” we cannot take with us that it appears as if the only thing which is missing is the choice to be present in living each moment to the fullest. We are so busy trying to make our mark, gain our freedom, change the system, impress our families, reunite with loved ones, do good in the neighborhood, seek revenge, get an education, get a good job, and be the boss. We are so busy that we miss the point.
WHAT IF all these things are a distraction from the truth; that none of it matters more than how we respect and embrace this very moment of our life? WHAT IF we will not be remembered in fifty years and that is the just way it is supposed to be? WHAT IF it is not about our legacy as much as it is our willingness to be present with our current environment?
WHAT IF we stop the chatter in our brain just long enough to see the peace we can create in this exact moment? WHAT IF our mind was still enough to hear the sounds which make up our surroundings? Would we hear the laughter coming from someone in joy? Could we hear the cry of another in need? WHAT IF all the trappings of leaving a grand legacy or grabbing the most out of life or fighting for our “freedom” for twenty years is exactly what robs us of our opportunity for inner peace?
Sometimes we are so busy planning for the future that we miss the point of the entire exercise of being human. To experience life with the absence of struggle, we must slow down and find the inner peace which only comes through contributing positively to the life of the individual right next to us. When we place our attention to being an example of integrity, peace, calm demeanor, helpfulness, as well as understanding and support, then we are helping to guide the way of those with whom we come into contact.
Will you be missed when you are gone? The better question is who misses the best of us when we are not present? And, what might happen if we really paid attention to the life unfolding right under our noses? Whose life can we make just a little bit easier today through our POSITIVE THOUGHTS? Whose life can we impact with a POSITIVE WORD? What POSITIVE ACTION can we choose which might serve as an example for others to follow?
I suspect it is not so important to concern ourselves with thinking about family going out of their way to visit, or society making it easy for someone to get back on their feet. Those are thought- consuming distractions to the single most important aspect of life; when you are not being of service then the best part of you is being missed. When you are blinded by the illusion of importance of certificates or groups or politics or legal paperwork it is then that you miss the point. Ask yourself, of the people right next to you, how many lives have you made better by a simple gesture, an act of kindness? With whom did you share something without requesting something in return? Was the best part of you missed today?
In one hundred years I will be forgotten. You, too, will be forgotten. And all your friends will be forgotten. I promise you one thing; you will be missed about as much as you miss your great grandmother. But, you do not need to be missed in your life right now. When you choose to be present, the very best part of your life will not be missed by anyone.
No matter how impossible it may appear at the moment, each one of us can choose to be present in the lives of every living thing with which we come into contact. If we are not making that choice, then we are missing our finest opportunity.
As I close the computer file with the images of a woman I recognize as myself, I am reminded that with every moment I am not focusing on the present, I am missed. The fact is; images fade and lives end. The world continues to turn with an entirely new crop of humans who, with each and every generation, struggle to make their mark, all the while missing the point.
Being missed is what happens when we do not pay attention to the subtle details of our everyday life. What matters most in all our lives is not the great works we do, or the great wealth or power we accumulate, or the physical freedom for which we strive. What matters most is how keen our eye is focused on identifying and assisting those in need; those who suffer right next to us.
We are missed when we are not making our immediate surroundings more peaceful, pleasant, supportive and positive for those who find themselves in our presence. When we practice being present to those things within five feet of our reach, it is only then that our legacy is experienced in real time. Rather than ask, “will I be missed?” we can ask ourselves, “what part of life am I missing?”