Many years ago, there was this brief period when I was extremely depressed about a bunch of things. My grandfather had just passed away, my thesis seemed to be going nowhere… I once spent a fair amount of time venting about it to a friend of mine named Satish. He listened quietly and then told me this:
Ramsu, there’s a simple three-step algorithm for happiness. The first step is to identify your metric — what makes you happy? The second step is to optimize your chosen metric — it takes effort and a bit of luck, but it can be done. The third step is a tricky one: It involves understanding that steps 1 & 2 have nothing whatsoever to do with your happiness.
Six years ago, he lost his life to an aggressive form of cancer. He was barely thirty at the time. Since then, I have hardly ever hated anything quite as much as I hate cancer. He was not the first loved one I lost this way, but his loss was probably the hardest to take.
I mention this because he has been on my mind a lot this past week — his birthday fell on April 1.
And today, I found yet another reason to hate cancer a bit more. Roger Ebert, my favourite film critic, went to the Big Multiplex in the Sky. I discovered him in grad school, a few years after I had gotten into the habit of writing film reviews. It was through his essays, especially those on all-time classics, that I began to see film as more than a medium of entertainment, and film reviews as more than a prosaic chronicle of what unfolded in front of us. His reviewing career has spanned decades, and I must have read hundreds of them, but his essay on Ikiru remains my favourite, thanks to this closing paragraph:
I saw Ikiru first in 1960 or 1961. I went to the movie because it was playing in a campus film series and only cost a quarter. I sat enveloped in the story of Watanabe for 2 1/2 hours, and wrote about it in a class where the essay topic was Socrates’ statement, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”‘ Over the years I have seen Ikiru every five years or so, and each time it has moved me, and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us.
Here was a man speaking not as a film critic but as a lover of cinema who took something back with him from a three hour stint in a darkened movie theater, and felt compelled to share his joy with the world. And by making it personal, he spoke to all of us.
I close with two quotes. The first is a translation of a song from Ikiru that I wrote about earlier:
Life is brief, fall in love, maidens
Before the crimson bloom fades from your lips
Before the tides of passion cools within you
For those of you who know no tomorrow
Life is brief, fall in love, maidens
Before our raven tresses begin to fade
Before the flames in your hearts flicker and die
For those to whom today will never return
The second is something Ebert quoted in an article he wrote on Salon.com a couple of years ago, and was written by Vincent Van Gogh:
Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.
Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?
Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.
To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.
Bon voyage, Mr. Ebert. And if you happen to see a quiet young man with a brilliant smile out there, tell him I said hi.