I have altered this image because the quote is mistakenly attributed to Buddha, and I didn’t want to perpetuate the mistake. It’s a good quote, and it actually comes from a book by Jack Kornfield, called Buddha’s Little Instruction Book. The idea is no doubt a distillation of Buddhist teachings, adapted for a modern audience. In fact, the quote comes in a couple of different forms.
This illustration says: In the end, only three things matter: how much you have loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.
Another form of the quote, possibly closer to what was in Kornfield’s book, is as follows: In the end these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you let go?
It’s a good piece of advice, no matter how it is worded, so let’s look at it.
The first thing that matters is how much you have loved. If this refers to being in a relationship, or a series of relationships, then what about those of us who have been single all or most of our lives? I think what is really being said here is that it’s important to allow love to be the basis for our thoughts, words and deeds. We should be able to treat anyone with loving kindness, even if they are not related to us or in a relationship with us – in fact, especially if they are not. Treating people with love doesn’t have to mean letting people into our lives. It may simply mean refraining from judging a person. This is often harder than it looks. How many of us are still angry with Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School? How many of us are disgusted by Jodi Arias, the young woman who has just been convicted of killing her boyfriend in cold blood? It’s one thing to recognize that these two human beings made choices that were absolutely wrong, but we don’t generally stop there. Instead, we start thinking about what awful people they must be, etc., etc. Then we go on to imagine that they must be on their way to hell, or in Lanza’s case, in hell already. That’s the judgment part. That’s the part we’re supposed to be able to refrain from.
What are some other examples of treating others with kindness? How did you treat the angry customer who called your company to complain recently, or the angry parent who was incensed that you gave his child a bad grade? How did you treat the waitress who served you the wrong order? How about the telemarketer who called you during dinner, or the drunk who dialed your number three times at 2 a.m. before he finally either gave up or reached whoever he wanted? How did you handle that? How about the guy who cut in front of you on the highway or the idiot who tailgated you for ten miles? What did you do about that? What about your subordinate at work who didn’t get the report done on time, so you had to turn it in to your boss late? Did you handle that situation with grace and tact or anger? How about your 95-year-old mom, who lives in a nursing home and keeps calling you by her sister’s name? How about your teenaged son who has brought home yet another speeding ticket? You get the drift.
OK, the second part has to do with “living gently” or “living fully.” What does that mean, anyway? To me, they mean different things. If you’re talking about living gently, I’m thinking in terms of leaving a small footprint on the earth, for example, or at least not leaving a big mess for others to clean up. If you’re talking about living fully, then I’m thinking in terms of living pro-actively, of going out and having lots of different experiences, instead of just sitting at home and watching TV, for example. Ideally, you would also want to learn as much as possible from all of your experiences.
The third part talks about letting go. That’s definitely a Buddhist concept, but it’s a good one, because there are an awful lot of things in this world that we really need to let go of. Just about everybody knows that money and material possessions are at the top of the list of things to let go of. Why? Because you can’t take them with you when your life here is over. You have to leave them behind sometime, so why not now? Then there is your social status and your position in your workplace or your career. Sure, you can enjoy status and position – you worked hard enough to earn them, but they will also have to be surrendered when you leave.
Your beliefs and opinions will have to be let go of, as well. That’s a lot harder. When I say “let go,” what I mean, here, is that at some point, you realize that it’s not necessary to express your opinions out loud, because, ultimately, nobody else really cares; they have their own opinions. You finally realize that people are not going to change their minds on the basis of your opinion, and if they do, then you are really guilty of forcing your opinions on the other person. Would that person have changed his or her mind if he/she had not listened to you? Probably not. Did the person really change his/her mind because your opinion was more sensible, or did the person only agree with you to get you off your soap box? It’s OK to have opinions, but the fact is that life is not always going to go the way you think it should, and all those “shoulds” that never happened will only end up making you miserable or bitter.
It’s something to think about, anyway. 🙂