I learned how to read and write quite early as a child. Naturally, reading became an important pastime in my early years and the fictional worlds inside the books a treasured playground. My vivid and unbounded imagination followed swiftly wherever the stories led me, and I never tired of wandering around in the various Wonderlands that existed in books. In my more creative moments, some of my favorite stories were given the
honor of being rewritten by me with the new endings that I wanted for the characters, whose personalities and lives had become so intimate to me.
Reading took on a more complex dimension when I became a little bit older. My family loved spending many idle weekend afternoons in bookstores. We would each find places to sit in different corners with piles of books to browse and savor. On these occasions, my father always bought me a few books. His choices were mostly well-known classics which were beyond the level of understanding of a twelve-year old. It was an arduous process to plow through the old language, let alone grasp the meaning of the complex dilemmas that the protagonists faced. But when I protested, my father simply told me to read it once to the end, even if I could not understand. Everything I read when I’m young will find its place in my mind and the meaning will come to me later in life, he said.
As I grew older, and sometimes danced, sometimes wrestled, with my own share of life’s trials and tribulations, happiness and disappointments, I often thought of the books that my father recommended years ago. Am I going through a similar situation? What was the answer in the end? My mind went back in time and searched through the memories of my childhood reading, and indeed, as my father said, I opened those books again.
That we can now understand the things that we didn’t when we were young is one of the gifts of time. With age, we accumulate experiences that shape our understanding of life and its events. We become the protagonists in the book of our own stories, and we find that as unique as the sequence and combination of our own life events are, there are common questions that we encounter as human beings, questions that man has faced since time immemorial. It is this shared fate that we recognize in the dramatic plots of a story well-told – the comedy and the tragedy of human condition. We recognize that it is at once our story, as well as the story of all those who have come before us.
As a precocious young person, always preoccupied with the question of what it meant to live well, works of literature and spirituality felt like textbooks that held the answers to life’s mystery. I was eager to obtain the correct answers even before I started living. I wanted to know what the wise people knew about the secret of how to live well. Age has since bestowed on me the humility to know that there is no one simple answer. But a book I read recently, by a respected ninety-something year old philosopher on his reflections on life, re-awakened my curiosity to peek into the wisdom of those who have lived and learned. Looking back on almost one century of life, what did they learn about the meaning of life? What do they ultimately think is important?
A long life is not the only road to wisdom. There are sometimes circumstances that turn our lives upside down and force us to urgently re-think the nature and purpose of life. Sometimes they are near-death experiences, being diagnosed with a terminal disease, or experiencing the death of loved ones – all the uninvited instances that brutally confront you with the fragility of life. You look back on your life and re-prioritize that which is truly important and discard the superfluous. Dramatic changes take place as a consequence of these experiences. We already know of many such stories. Siddhartha, the prince who was born to power and wealth, left everything behind to seek enlightenment after realizing that life was suffering. Saul, who used to persecute Christians, became Paul, one of the key figures in early Christianity, after a mystical experience of being blinded by a bright light. There are many other such stories all around us.
The topic of ARS VITAE Volume 7 is “Looking Back”. It is a compilation of testimonies about what is important in life, both from people who have had long lives or had unexpected encounters with death. Aside from a look at the Book of Job from The Old Testament and Leo Tolstoy’s search for the meaning of life, they are mostly accounts by contemporaries who have lived in the last hundred years. This volume is divided into three sections: the first part, “Death and Misfortune”, contains the reflections of people who were suddenly forced to deal with unforeseen turns in their lives; the second part, “Looking Back” shares the words of wisdom from people who led extraordinarily long lives and had something to say about what they learned; the last section, “Life’s Lessons”, looks at the findings from the latest research on what constitutes a happy life as well as the practical actions and the conscious choices that we can make to live without regrets.
Everyone’s life experience is different, and what is captured in this volume is only a limited representation of the wisdom and advice of a very small number of people. But there are also a surprising number of commonalities in the big picture of life that they depict in the last days of their lives. As in the Buddhist parable of “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, perhaps we live our whole lives limited by a narrow view of
only what is in front of us, and it is only in the final moment that we are graced with the clarity to see the entire picture.
From the moment we are born, death is a certainty. It comes to us all without exception, whether it is at the end of a peaceful and uneventful life or is thrown at us unexpectedly. In order to truly live life to the fullest,
paradoxically, we need to keep death close by and acknowledge it as a part of existence. Some people look ahead to their deaths by writing their own obituaries, wills, or composing a bucket list, all as a way of vividly reaffirming the preciousness of life. ARS VITAE Volume 7 is the obituary, the will and the bucket list of those who had their full encounter with life and death. It is also a gentle nudge for us all to pause and reflect on “ars vitae”, the art of life.
Publisher & Editor-in-Chief
이 지 현 J. Julianne Lee