A scrap of paper
In my wallet I carry a crumpled scrap of paper containing quotations that have become favorites of mine over the years. On street corners waiting for the traffic light to change, in elevators, and at other fleeting moments, I may open my wallet, unfold the piece of paper entangled in credit cards and bank slips, and refresh myself by reading the quotations.
On those days when everything else seems to go wrong, I savor these words of Athol Fugard, the South African playwright. ``When I reach the end of a day that has seemed pointless and stupid, I then work through it again, minute by minute, to find out whether even in peripheral vision I saw things that celebrated life.''
We all experience emotional ups and downs in life, but compared with James Boswell, most of us are models of equanimity. Moody and mercurial, he soared on certain days and plumbed the ocean depths when feeling low. I sympathize with his weaknesses and admire his fitful efforts to overcome them.
On my sheet of quotations I treasure this sentence of his: ``How sad will it be if I turn [out] no better than I am.''
In every age, and ours is no exception, there are people who find life tiresome and contemptible. Montaigne knew life to be otherwise, finding it both agreeable and worth prizing. ``Nature has placed it in our hands adorned with such favorable conditions,'' he wrote, ``that we have only ourselves to blame if it weighs on us and if it escapes us unprofitably.''
Not having achieved renown, I tend to exaggerate its worth. Again I benefit from the words of Montaigne, who proves this useful corrective. ```If I had been placed in a position to manage great affairs, I would have shown what I could do.' Have you been able to think out and manage your own life? You have done the greatest task of all.... To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquillity in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most.''
Many people can quote the first sentence of Tolstoy's novel, ``Anna Karenina'': ``Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.''
I have selected the final sentence of the book, however, for my quotation sheet. Having long pondered the meaning of life, Levin concludes: ``but from now on my life, my whole life, no matter what happens to me, every second of it, is not only not meaningless as it was before, but it has the incontestable meaning of the goodness I have the power to put into it!''
The final quotation on my scrap of paper evokes special memories for me. My mother, when she lectured on foreign affairs, would conclude her speeches with these lines. The words are those of the American poet Richard Wilbur, who wrote the lyrics for the musical version of ``Candide.''
No longer naive or overly optimistic, aware now of the world's many injustices, Candide sets this modest goal for himself: ``We promise only to do our best and to live out our lives. Dear God, that's all we can promise in truth.'' (Salve magna parens! Hail, great parent!)