Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Just Passing Through

In a letter dated July 15, 1813 John Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson: "You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other". As I read that interesting and profound challenge, it occurred to me that it would not be possible to explain ourselves to someone else until we come to a basic understanding of ourselves. How would you explain yourself to a friend or a stranger without lying? Life is so brief, and yet so complicated. We came from a place we do not remember, and we are moving toward a destiny we cannot see. It is difficult to honestly explain our place in the scheme of things.

The Venerable Bede, English historian, scholar and monk (AD 673-735) described the nature of our existence on earth as being like a single sparrow on a dark night flying swiftly in at one end of a great hall and immediately flying out the other. Somewhat like this, says the Venerable Bede, is the life of man, "but of what follows or what went before, we are utterly ignorant". Thomas Carlyle, Scottish historian and philosopher, characterized the nature of our existence as: "One life, a little gleam of time between two eternities". We are just passing through.

If you were given a minute at the end of your life to explain yourself, what would you like to be able to say? What would you write in a single sentence epitaph that would honestly sum up your life?

When Loren Eiseley, noted anthropologist, naturalist, and writer died in the Summer of 1977, he had already chosen an epitaph for his wife and himself. Like so much of his writing, this simple sentence spoke volumes to those who have ears to hear. It reads: "We loved the earth, but could not stay." It reminded me of something Arlo Guthrie once said: "The world has shown me what it has to offer. It is a nice place to visit, but I would not want to stay."

While most of us live as if we will be here forever, and most of us are hard put to imagine how the world could possibly get on without us, in our more reflective moments we know that we are not here to stay. For the most part our pilgrimage in this world is beautiful and full of meaning, and we should stop and smell the flowers along the way. Life is a marvelous adventure, which many feel is but a prelude to something even greater. Whatever the meaning and purpose of our pilgrimage in this dimension, it is clear that it was never intended that we stay here.

Since we cannot stay, and since we will not pass this way again, whatever good and lovely thing we can do, we must do it now. There will be no replay of the opportunities of today. As the sun sets on this day, it is gone forever, and our deeds are indelibly done or left undone.

We all have impulses to reach out to people we encounter, but impulse does not always progress into action. In our sophisticated culture we are trained to restrain certain impulses. We have a variety of impulses, some of which are at least inappropriate if not destructive. The process of becoming mature human beings involves learning to filter impulses. When you have an impulse to do some good and loving act, do it. Prayerful and intentional effort can in time trump timidity. The wounded and needy persons who brush elbows with you today will not likely be there tomorrow. If you do not reach out to them today, you may not have another opportunity.

One sure way to improve our spiritual lives is to do one good thing each day for someone who cannot repay the deed. It is even better if the deed is anonymously done. You need not go looking for some good deed to do, it will find you. It will likely come unexpectedly. Be ready.

Etienne De Grellet penned a classic and noble thought we would do well to remember as we make our rapid, one-way passage through life. "I shall pass through this world but once. If, therefore, there is any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."