What have you done for me lately?

When I was a full-time choral musician, I noticed a post production phenomenon that would occur after completing a performance, say a musical or a concert or a major work for example. People would congratulate us for our accomplishment. Full of praise and ebullience for what we had just done, they would offer kind words, compliments, appreciation for the hard work and level of performance we had realized. And then, invariably they would ask, “What have you got planned next?” Needless to say, such a question was almost always a mood killer. No basking in the limelight for us, no enjoyment of the moment in which we had pulled off a wonderful performance, the question of what was planned next always loomed in our musician psyches. I came to call this phenomenon, the “What have you done for me lately?” phenomenon, and I believe most  music performers would recognize the feeling.

What have you done for me lately?

In our Western way of thinking, we tend to believe that the sum total of our lives earns us a good death, and hopefully an even better afterlife. In the movie, Saving Private Ryan, the older version of Private Ryan requests of his family, “Tell me that I am a good man.” Standing before the grave of Captain Miller, the man who gave up his own life so that Ryan could return home from fighting in World War II, he falls on his knees and pleads with his family, “Tell me that I am a good man.” And because it is a movie, we are privy to the event over 50 years ago that leads to Ryan’s emotional outburst. As Miller is dying from wounds sustained in defending the younger man, he reaches up to the young Ryan, grasping him fiercely and hissing to him through clenched teeth, “Earn this, earn this!” It is a Western tale illustrative of just how much we connect the concept of merit and a good life. It assumes that we can earn the death of another through the life that we choose to lead, that such merit is equal to another’s death as long as we realize a life of goodness.

And we are not the only ones.

In Theravada Buddhism, one of the strong meta-narratives that shapes religious and cultural belief is that what happens in this life determines (one might even say earns) our next life as we traverse the eons, growing either toward Hell or Nirvana. In Thailand, there is a saying (please excuse the transliteration all my Thai speaking friends), “Chewit nii, Chewit naa,” which roughly means that what you do in this life will determine your next life. And of course, the concept of making merit is extremely important to a Buddhist way of life. In  essence, the Theravada  Buddhist  narrative suggests that the life we are living today is one that we have earned through past life, and what we do in the present will determine the future life to come.

In many ways this is an Eastern version of “What have you done for me lately?”

So many of you responded with such kindness to my last blog, particularly to the musings about whether or not the love that I have carried, held, felt for my family, my friends, my loves would be remembered after I am gone. Some of you almost scoffed, wondering what was wrong with me that I would even allow such thoughts to exist. Others sought to reassure me that I did not need to explore such questions. A few of you wondered if I was on a fishing expedition. All of these are appropriate responses, but they belie the fact that such musings are not idle speculation or questioning.

As one looks toward the last days, it is mete and right, normal and natural to question the meaning of one’s life, the impact that you have had, the joy and grief that you leave behind. Even Jesus questioned the whirlwind that brought his life to a close and ended his ministry on earth. I have never met a dying person who did not question the meaning of their own lives, and of course as I sought to comfort them, my own answers reflected the same responses that so many of you gave to me. There just isn’t any way around it. I suspect that in my final months, I will continue to raise these questions for precisely the reasons many of you suggested that I need not ask.

As I continue the ever smaller orbit of my mission on earth, I cannot help but notice how uncanny are the parallels between musical performance, life merit no matter the culture, and the preparation required for death’s ultimate recital.

In music, even when I felt I had completely prepared myself and my groups, even when I knew I could be confident in the performance we would give, there was always a nagging feeling that we might have done more, that we could have been better as we faced our moment of truth. And while I learned to enjoy the moment of performance as the apex of the musical experience, there was always a sense of letdown after it was over, a questioning of what could have been done better, of decisions made that resulted in the level of performance we had accomplished. Looking forward to the next performance and the next, it is no wonder that the question of what have you done for me lately emerged.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that my whining questions in the last blog are natural and normal for any human being, but especially for one in his last months of life. It is normal to look back and question the goodness and meaning of the life that we have lived. It is normal to be less than trusting in the idea that we have done all we can for those that we love, for whom we feel great responsibility. And it is absolutely normal to question how we have affected those whom we have loved in this lifetime as our lives end, and they move forward into a life without us.

When I first started blogging, it was my hope that as I wrote honestly about my experiences, it would be helpful – helpful to me in trying to analyze the meaning of ALS in my life, and helpful to others as they faced major challenges in their own lives. Now, as I face the end game, I don’t want to start withholding information, questions, musings, thoughts and feelings and connections from you or myself. The question of life merit, whether you think it appropriate or not, weighs heavily upon my soul. I make no apologies for I believe the question is highly appropriate when one is in close proximity to death. To be transparent and truthful, I feel that I must share the questions as they arise, no matter how logical or irrational they may seem.

After all, it is part of the rehearsal, the preparation for the performance, the technical realization and the affective embrace of a life well lived or otherwise. It is an ethic of honest analysis, an aesthetic frame of reference that shines crystaline light on the good and bad, the ugly and the beautiful. And I come by it honestly.

It is just another way to ask myself what I might have done…, lately.

14 thoughts on “What have you done for me lately?

  1. Thank you many times over. Your thoughtful, reflective and above all honest sharing of your experience has been so helpful at a very real and personal level to me and I suspect many of your devoted blog readers. Hold nothing back. We are strong enough to face it with you, through you, while honoring you. Judy

  2. Dear Bruce, Yesterday we voted for people in government. In many cases
    there was no one we really wanted to vote for; there were really no good
    choices. Today we are voting on you as a person of wonderful character for
    what you have done for us, and lately is a whole lifetime. Your whole
    lifetime of performances have been totally musical. You are adored on many
    levels through many “stages.” Accept our thanks and applause, for you have
    been a maestro of life as you have conducted so many different performances.
    And you have earned our vote and many encores to come. Thanks so much.

  3. Dear Bruce,
    Your thoughts, reflections, musings have always come from your heart and touched my heart. Keep saying what needs to be said, write what needs to be written, sing from your heart, until you can sing no more. Your life is a blessing to us.

  4. You have walked a wonderful walk thus far and with the light of the divine upon you. You have accomplished much and always the teacher, have taught so many truths to so many vastly different students. Still it is always well for a person to ask questions, to evaluate oneself. Certainly there are always those who would lend their opinions whether just or not. But only we (and God) can know the truth of our own hearts and minds and lives.
    What have you done lately? Wow.

  5. Know doubt you will one day hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
    Human being, human doing, surrounded by God’s Light and Love.

  6. Bruce, We’ve never met, but I feel we are kin. Something I’ve always wanted to do–since I was thirteen–was write The Gospel According to Judas. The gist of that book, if I could rise to that level of wisdom and writing skill, would be that Judas is forgiven. The nearest I ever came to writing that book was the letter I wrote an acquaintance who ended up in prison, to whom I wrote, “God has forgiven me, so I know he has forgiven you.” We all make really royal mistakes in the course of our lives, and there is room in God’s mercy for each and every one of us. You have done your best, and are continuing to do your best in this current circumstance. If the only good you have done in your entire life is write honestly about this illness (which I don’t believe for an instant), it is enough. Thank you for what I sense in you, and blessings on this next phase of your journey.

    If you aren’t comfortable with the word “God,” substitute whatever word does work for you, my friend.

  7. Oh, Forever Teacher, you help us to keep thinking and not be satisfied with where we have landed. You encourage us to look to the horizon and see new sights, mountains, valleys and views and viewing points. Thank you.

  8. This is my first time reading your blog, Bruce, and I have to say I wish it was the norm to ask these questions at any time of our lives. And to engage in the tough dialogue! As someone with a disability, I started writing my own blog because I want to educate others about what it’s like. To know that invisibility does not mean one’s immense pain is not there…To know that I don’t have to defend putting my own needs first…To have a safe space for others to share their stories who are going through something similar and are questioning the norms of society as we see them from a new perspective since our diagnoses. That’s exactly what you are doing. Thank you for helping us look at the norms from a new perspective. That’s the only way we will ever change the norms, together.

  9. Oh my! I find myself repeatedly (fretfully, unwillingly) comparing my live achievement with people who make a ‘real’ difference, fighting ebola maybe, or inventing a new prosthesis or scientific wonder. And in the last few weeks Iv’e begun taking woodwind lessons for the first time in decades! Your insights are so penetrating and so welcome.

  10. Always thought-provoking and always inspirational, I can relate to the ‘performance’ metaphor having been a professional ballet dancer. One works so hard leading up to the performance, then there is the ‘high’ of the performance, followed by a complete emptiness and the inevitable questioning that you write of, “did I give it my all? Was it the best it could be?” And so on. It is useless reflection, as the performance is over, and it was what it was. Your calm, reflective, probing wisdom and intellectual curiosity about everything continues to inspire me and those around you. Your graciousness and love (you literally radiate love and gratitude) in the face of this most cruel disease is a lesson to us all. You continue to be an excellent teacher, Bruce. I regret that I did not get the chance to k ow you better. You are an amazing human being with a lot to say. Thank you for being you and inspiring those who know you. Blessings, my friend.

  11. Bruce, as someone commented, those are questions we could all ask ourselves regardless of our health. Not sure what my answer would be but from what I’ve been reading, you have touched many people.

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