Talk of the Tombstones

This post gets slightly less morbid, I promise.

If you are ever on a long car ride with me, let me warn you: I am terrible at conversation starters. So terrible, to tell the truth, that my friends still make fun of me for one of my starters last fall on a trip to Philadelphia.

I asked: “If you could have one quote, what would be on your gravestone?”

OK, OK, I know what you are thinking: Dave, your weird siren is going off. But my point was really more like two related, less-weird questions: What defines you? What do you hope people will remember from your life and about you?

It’s weighty stuff, but I was reminded of it while finishing off Meditations earlier this week. The author never intended to publish this book–it was a set of personal notes; an ancient and very private blog of sorts. Perhaps because of that, by reading the book, we see the man and the person and the world that Marcus Aurelius dreamed of and imagined. In short, we see his answers to those two questions.

Here are ten quotes that show parts of those answers and are particularly memorable. Enjoy.

10. Keep reminding yourself of the way things are connected, of their relatedness. All things are implicated in one another and in sympathy with each other. This event is the consequence of some other one. Things push and pull on each other, and breathe together, and are one.

9, What is “eternal” fame? Emptiness. Then what should we ask for? Only this: proper understanding; unselfish action; truthful speech.

8. The things you think determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.

7. Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option:

  • To accept this event with humility
  • To treat this person as he should be treated
  • To approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in

6. Alexander and Caesar and Pompey. Compared with Diogenes, Heraclitus, Socrates? The philosophers knew the what, the why, the how. Their minds were their own. –The others? Nothing but anxiety and enslavement.

5. When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that your defining characteristic—what defines a human being—is to work with others. Even animals know how to sleep. And it’s the characteristic activity that’s the more natural one—more innate and more satisfying.

4. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. So keep getting away from it all—like that. Renew yourself.

3. When you start to lose your temper, remember: There’s nothing manly about rage. It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being—and a man. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners. To react like that brings you closer to impassivity—and so to strength. Pain is the opposite of strength, and so is anger.

2. The student as boxer, not fencer. The fencer’s weapon is picked up and put down again. The boxer’s is part of him. All he has to do is clench his fist.

1. It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that. And this too: you don’t need much to live happily.

**And, finally, one last bonus line from MA himself**

“In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blog of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.” — Now that is pretty inspiring, huh?

So here’s an experiment: each year, starting now, write down the sentence that defines your outlook on life. Then, when you and I are old and droopy and confined to remote-controlled rocking chairs eating genetically modified broccoli paste or something equally delicious, we will be able to look back and see our lives as an evolution of words.

Better yet: you’ll have plenty of selections for your gravestone.   

**If you have a line or a quote that you think is awesome and sticks with you, post it in the comments section–I would be thrilled to hear from you!**



Filed under Books, General, Life

4 responses to “Talk of the Tombstones

  1. Mike

    Samuel Ullman- Nobody grows old merely by a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, fear, self-distrust bows the heart and turns the spirit back to dust.

  2. “Time doesn’t flow if you don’t dream.” — Orhan Pamuk

  3. Rebecca

    Here’s what I’ve wanted for my gravestone/obit for a long time:
    She loved gardening, Jesus, whimsy, and David. Not necessarily in that order.

  4. Rebecca

    That was probably entirely too whimsical a response to your serious essay.

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