We hear and read so much bad news, and see so many people blamed, denounced, cursed, vilified, demonized. all but crucified. It's nothing new in human history, and I can't help with that. But if you ever begin to feel people are worthless, born bad, even evil .. well. there are few things sadder than to see another human being start believing that, because it will destroy you faster than the most virulent cancer.
I remember about 25 years ago when I went with my mom to see her accountant. He was a quiet little fellow who never seemed to say much of anything. On that day, he began to explain something about her income taxes when he meandered onto a personal comment:
"I don't trust anybody. [Long pause]. Well, one person. [Even longer pause.] No, not even one person. Nobody!"
Now I'd spent years hearing comments like this all day long, but I was unprepared at this moment, and felt an icy chill run down my spine. A confession like his is just about the next worst to, "I'm dead inside." I don't know what hurt and loneliness made him feel that way.
But it's fairly common, maybe not in that extreme form. With the gruesome daily menu of murderers, child molesters, rapists and cheats the media serves us, it's not surprising some people fall for that most desolate and forlorn conclusion.
If you ever begin to feel that way even slightly, I recommend you spend 15 or 20 minutes a day reading obituaries. You'll find something out.
I’ve read at least a dozen or so of these every day since 2000, and I’ve come to feel a growing respect for these people, even a reverence.
All obituaries are similar but they're all different, too, as Charles Dickens might have said. The typical obituary is the most earnest, heartfelt effort to describe and praise a human being and say goodbye to him or her. Even those obituaries where the writer obviously fibbed and stretched the truth are this way. And in their fondness, in their way of squeezing in one final warm embrace, obituaries can be as funny as all get-out, too. That's an added benefit.
For example, did you realize that all American men born between 1890 and 1940 starred on at least 5 of their high school sports teams. and were All-State in at least two?
There are no readers in obituaries, either. Only "voracious readers"!
And if you died after having any ethics at all, buddy, I hope it was a "work ethic" and look, if it wasn't a "strong work ethic", you were a just a scoundrel, a slacker and a piker! You lazy bum! Ha ha.
But you find the most endearing humility in obituaries, too. No obituary writer ever complained about where a dead person was born or spent his life, or made excuses about where he grew up or retired. From Chicken Freckles, Iowa to Exhaust, Vermont, from Obscurity, Oklahoma to Dulcolax, Delaware, these burgs, one-horse towns, villages, cities and metropolises are cited with tender respect, as they should be, because what difference does it make, anyway?
Every obituary has the potential of being a charming vignette. You bathe in the warm rushing currents of those whose obituaries that list and cite every great aunt, third cousin and brother-in-law's grandchildren down to the last hoarse gasping Deuteronomy, and specifies Clearwater, Florida; Davenport, Iowa; Klamath Falls, Oregon; Bisbee, Arizona; Pinole, California or Babbitt, Minnesota as where these multitudes individually lived, and thank you.
The names! Glorious! Agnes, Florence, Floyd, Mortimer, Mabel, Hortense, Abner, Milton, Hyacinth, Isabel, Elmer, Gaston, Millicent, Iris, Carlin, Braven and a thousand more, names you haven't heard since Dad drove the family to the Snodcurdle Family Reunion in Monrovia, CA on that sweltering Sunday afternoon in 1951 when Mother was 7 months along with little Hiram. today's strapping San Clemente dentist and marathoner, "Butch"! Names to cherish.
More than anything else, obituaries record how people like you and me strived to do their best and make the wisest decisions they knew how for themselves and the families they loved with all their hearts despite the crushing obstacles, conflagrations, floods, high waters, economic calamities, sicknesses and injuries, unbearable losses and piercing sadnesses we all endure on this blue (or green) planet, wherever we may be, manor-born or delivered in a little lean-to shack by the river. That's the greatness of Homo Sapiens Sapiens, that we people the Earth, love, and endure until our cosmic number is called, when the wolf (or the owl, or the Golden Retriever) calls our name, when we have an hour left to clean out our desk, cubicle, or locker, and somebody remembers us. Who can ask for anything more?
Every obituary is a chronicle of a human journey, an adventure. Some rival DON QUIXOTE, others THE ODYSSEY, or TRISTRAM SHANDY, occasionally THE BROTHERS KARAMOZOV or OF HUMAN BONDAGE, sometimes fancifully THE GREAT GATSBY, once in a while THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, even HUCKLEBERRY FINN, but usually a simple story, often not enough for a haiku, even.
I've teased them a little, even mocked some, but in the final analysis as JFK (or his speechwriter Theodore White) annoyingly said, obituaries are folk literature, if not poetry, and the best way to know people short of being their friends. I don't think you can read obituaries for long without gaining a deepening respect for people.
And they're not morbid, not once you accept the fact that we all die some fine day.
(I started reading obituaries when I created an alumni website for my high school classmates.)