The Man Who Gave Up on Life

By Doug Muder

Once there was a man who gave up on life. He was not an old man, but he had seen enough of life to know what he thought of it. He had made, lost, and made back several fortunes. He had loved a wife and watched her die. He had raised children and seen thm grow away from him. At timeshe had been honored and revered for what seemed to him to be no good reason. At other times he had been reviled for no better reason. During some periods of his life he had done his best to be a good man, and during other periods he had cared only for his own pleasure. As best he could see the results were all the same. Nothing had brought him lasting happiness. Nothing had given him an inner security or sense of well-being.

His observations of others only confirmed what his own life had taught him. At times they would act as if they believed the universe was theirs, and at other times they seemed to think that their lives had been abysmal fialures. But he himself could see no real difference. The world was a random, whirling mess. People went up and people came down. Things came together and things fell apart. There was no pattern to it, no way to win, no inside knowledge that would allow a person to beat the system.

Knowing this, he decided he wanted out. He resolved to kill himself, and he secured the means to do so. On the chosen day he woke early in the morning and went for a walk in his garden. “Is there anything in the world I will regret leaving?” he asked himself. He looked at the buds and sprouts and thought about the flowers he would never see open, but the thought didn’t move him. “I’ve seen many flowers in my life, and besides, they would just wither and die in the fall,” he said. He looked at the food-bearing plants that he would never harvest, but again the thought did not tempt him to revese his course. “You eat them and they’re gone,” he said. “A day later you are hungry again and it is as if they had never existed.”

At one place on the path there was an excellent view of the valley below, and he stopped to look at it. The sun beat down on his head and he felt hot. “There is one thing,” he thought. “I always meant to put a shade tree here, but I never had the time.” Standing there, he felt a bit of whimsy and decided to indulge himself. “I’m about to give a third of my lifespan away. Who has more time than I do?” Planting a tree he would never see grow made no sense to him, but he could see no reason not to do it. “I can kill myself after it’s planted,” he said.

And so he got his gardening tools and prepared teh ground carefully. He went to the local green house and, since time was no object, looked around until he was sure that he had picked out exactly the tree he wanted. Then he went back to the spot on the path, imagined the tree grown up in a variety of orientations, and planted it just th eway he wanted it to be. “Tomorrow I’ll be dead and lightning can strike it down,” he said. “But today it’s just the way I want it.”

The next morning he woke up and walked into town. “Is there anyone in the world I will regret leaving?” he asked himself. He thought of friends that he had known for years, he thought of all the happiness and sadness they had experienced together, but he felt no regret. “Their lives will go on,” he said. “And whether those lives wil be better or worse, no one can say.” He thought of the children he knew, and he thought about how he would never know what kind of adults they would grow up to be. But he did not change his mind. “I’ve seen plenty of adults,” he said. “And even though these children won’t be exactly like anyone I’ve met before, I doubt they’ll turn out to be all that different, either.”

When he reached the park at the town center, he turned around to go home. But a boy called to him. “Mister, you’re taller than I am. Can you help me get my kite out of that tree?”

He looked at the boy and at the tree, and saw that the kite-string was hanging just out of the boy’s reach. “There was something I was planning to do,” he said. “But I suppose it can wait a few minutes.” He walked over, grabbed the string, and gave it a light tug–but the kite would not come down. He gave it another tug, and saw that the kite would tear before it would come down. “This isn’t going to work,” he said to the boy.

“Maybe if you shake the branch,” the boy suggested hopefully.

The man traced the branch down to the trunk and saw that it was just out of his reach. He jumped at it a few times and managed to touch the branch, but not shake it. “Maybe if you got on my shoulders you could shake the branch yourself,” he told the boy. But this attempt failed also, since the boy wasn’t strong enough to give the branch a good shake.

They sat down on the ground and looked at the kite. The man bought hot dogs from a vendor and they ate them while they studied the tree. They tried throwing rocks at the small branches that held the kite’s tail. The man boosted the boy into the tree, and he shook the branch by bouncing on it. The man climbed up into the tree himself and bounced the branch. The boy climbed out on a stronger, lower branch and tried to reach the kite. But the kite stayed stuck.

Finally the man saw how the problem could be solved. He could climb out on a higher branch, and as teh branch bent with his weight it woudl lover him down to where he could reach the kite. This seemed like a very risky course, but then he thought, “What am I risking? If I weren’t doing this I’d be dead already.” So he climbed up to the higher branch and did exactly what he had pictured. When the kite came within his reach he unhooked the tail, pushed the kite free of the branch beneath it, and watched it sail to the ground.

The boy was very pleased and decided to take the kite and go home, since the sun was almost down. The man brushed off his clothes an dbegan walking back the way he had come. “Tomorrow I’ll be dead and he can put it right back in the same tree,” he said. “But today it’s down and he’s happy.”

The next morning the man walked to a library and asked himself, “Is there anything in the world that I will regret not knowing?” He walked past the rows of books and thought of the great philosophers that he had never completely understood. “And if I sat ten centuries in this library, would it be different?” he asked. “Did even they themselves understand the full import of what they were saying?” He thought of the famous works that he had never even opened and thought, “And what of the famous works that I did read? Did they turn winter to summer for me? Did they bring the dead back to life? Did they make dark and chaos into light and order?”

He left the library and walked down the road toward his home. When he was halfway home he passed a deserted building that he had seen many times, and noticed, as he had many times before, a small path that went behind it. “I’ve always wondered where that path goes,” he said. It went up a hill and through some trees. It came down into a marsh and he could se that it started again on the othe rside. The marsh was full of mud and would spoil his good shoes if it covered them. “I’ll leave instructions that only the head of my casket is to be open,” he said. “My shoes won’t need to look good.” Then he crossed the marsh and followed the path on the other side. It came to a clearing and an observation point. From the point he was able to see a view of his home that he had never seen before. “Tomorrow I’ll be dead,” he said, “and maybe no one will know where this path goes or whose house that was. But at least I know it now.”

This pattern continued for the reset of that week, and on into the next month. He would meet each day as if he had already given it over to death, and he would ask himself if he knew of any reason to snatch it back. And each day, to his surprise, there would be one single thing–a single promise worth keeping, a single question worth answering, a single deed worth doing. Each day he would devote to his one single thing, caring not at all about the time it took or whether the day’s outcome would satisfy any standard of judgment. Each day was extra. Each day was a day tacked onto the end of his life.

Months came and went, and people began to notice that there was something odd about him. Some thought he was crazy, because he did not respond to any motivation that made sense to them. Some thought that he was the only truly good person they had ever met, since he never seemed to worry about himself and always seemed to be able to lend a hand or ear to someone who needed one.

As the years went by, word of him began to spread. From time to time young prople would show up at his door and ask if they could be his followers. Most of them were quite puzzled by the humor he found in this. The first few he told to come back tomorrow, and he seemed honestly surprised to see them again the next day. Many he sent away with a laugh and a quip, but he stopped doing this when he discovered that the would-be disciples were putting great effort into finding the cryptic significance of these interactions. Eventually he stopped sending them away at all. Most would become bored after a week or so and went away their own. Some stayed on, and before long his house was filled with these followers. It was a great inconvenience. “But what do I are about inconvenience?” he thought. “Tomorrow I’ll be dead. What’s a little inconvenience to me?”

The followers asked many questions but got few answers. Mostly they taught each other, and over the years they published many books “interpreting” their master’s philosophy. By the time the man reached old age, he had become famous and been discredited many times. His words (actual and imagined alike) had been touted and debunked by the famous comentators of his age, and both the touting and the debunking had given him great amusement.

After many years he fell ill, and it became apparent to the disciples that death would wait for him no longer. They gathered around his bed to witness the event and to hear his final pronouncement. The most senior of them asked, “Master, you’ve done so many things in your life. You’ve traveled the world. You’ve examined the great secrets. You’ve helped so many people. Is there anything else you would like to do before you die?”

The old man smiled and his eyes sparkled. “Just one thing,” he said, and closed his eyes in death.

Over the years there has been a great deal of speculation as to the meaning of these last words. Some of his disciples believe that the one thing he still wanted to do was to end misery in the world, and they have given themselves over to the doing of good deeds. Some believe that he wished to complete his liberation from the wheel of karma, an dthey have devoted their lives to meditation. Some believe that death itself was the final experience he sought, and that in dying he achieved it. Hardly a year goes by without the appearance of a new book, containing yet another interpretation of the words “just one thing”.

A few disciples, however, only laugh at these speculations. They believe that the true meaning of the last words is forever lost to us. They have written no books, because they say they have no knowledge to pass on. The truth, they claim, is too simple to be known.