Not Much Time Remains

I am posting this week’s Sa’di Says, “Not Much Time Remains,” in memory of my friend Adam Schonbrun, who died in February:

I know life leaves me with each breath I take,
and these last fifty years I’ve been asleep.
Not much time remains. How, in what’s left,
can I make up for all I haven’t done?
The man who chooses not to start his work
will die when God beats the drum of his death,
and he will die in shame, his heart empty.

A couple of years ago, when I turned fifty, I suddenly realized the truth of something a writer with whom I was friendly told me when he was in his fifties and I still had a decade and a half to go. “Once you hit a half century,” he said, “the next twenty years of your life somehow seem a whole lot shorter than the previous twenty. If you don’t start doing what you really want to do, it’ll be too late before you know it.”

He spoke from experience. He had only recently emerged from a long and profoundly unhappy marriage, which he had always talked about as a kind of voluntary imprisonment. I didn’t then, and I don’t now, know the details—except that he was careful not to suggest that his wife was solely to blame. What I do know is that everything about him seemed to change once their divorce was final. The way he dressed, the way he talked, the way he chose to spend his time—all of it, I don’t know how else to describe it, suddenly filled with light.

It would be easy to attribute these changes to the fact that my friend had fallen in love. In the pop-culture movie version of his life, no doubt, that’s how the director would frame it. Important as that new love was to him, however, to focus on it alone would be to miss the fact that he had, at last, begun devoting himself to the writing he’d felt he was always meant to do. Not that he hadn’t been writing before. He’d published books and written articles, and he’d enjoyed it, but that work had become at some point more about his career than his passion. Choosing this work, claiming it as that which truly fulfilled him, laid the foundation of all the other changes that followed.

What Sa’di says in the lines I have translated is absolutely true. Whether or not you choose to begin the work you are called to do, you will die, and to die having chosen in the negative will be to die in shame–because it will mean you have chosen not to risk failure. Or, perhaps more to the point, you will have chosen not to risk being seen in the act of failing. At its core, after all, that’s what shame is: the desire to keep hidden the failings we believe constitute our deepest, truest selves. For at the heart of shame is not just fear of the world’s negative judgment, but the conviction that the world–having seen, having known, your failings–will conclude that you might as well not have existed in the first place, that existence was more than you really deserved.

Adam Schonbrun and I met when we were in eighth grade at the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, and our decades-long friendship was nothing if not rocky. The details of that rockiness are unimportant. What matters is that I miss my friend, and that, in missing him, I am reminded of what made him such a compelling presence, not just in my life, but in the life of anyone who knew him: the single-minded commitment that he made to the work he felt himself called to do, being a poet. I do not mean by this to dismiss or trivialize the value of who he was as a father, a brother, an uncle, a husband, a teacher, or a friend, but the degree to which he was able to give himself wholeheartedly to those roles–at least this is how it always seemed to me–was a direct result of giving himself first and foremost to the making of the poems through which he found and out of which he spoke the meaning of his life.

I do not think that Adam died in shame; nor do I think he died with his heart empty. On the contrary, I think his heart was full. I hope people are able to say that about me when my time comes.


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