The end of year’s New York Times magazine section is my favorite. Since 1996, it has been dedicated to “The Lives They Lived”, people of some fame whose lives impacted the world they colored and enhanced. They choose an interesting mix of people. Some famous; some people who struggle through life with ups and downs, successes and failures, repeated attempts to resolve something unfinished in their lives. Always striving these are people of accomplishments but not necessarily the kind that leads to the fame or fortune we expect of front-page New York Times obituaries.
Among the people I am drawn to is Sylvain Bromberger. In 1940, a 15 year old Belgian Jew, he and his family were granted visas to travel to Portugal by the then unknown Portuguese consul general named Aristides de Sousa Mendes. Mendes defied the Portuguese’s government’s directive and saved tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Hitler. Severely reprimanded by his government Mendes died in poverty and disgrace in 1954. Over the course of his life as a professor at MIT and a philosopher of science, Bromberger wanted to know “why”. Why was his family saved? Why is the earth’s circumference 24,901 miles? Why questions he teaches us uncover the hidden and reveal the unknown, link what is seemingly unconnected. Bromberger dedicated one of his books to Mendes.
The people remembered don’t live perfect lives. Who does? But somehow their accomplishments are tied to their challenges; their successes are bound up with their defeats. One thing they all teach me: there are so many ways to make a difference. These people take the raw material we call living, shaping and fabricating it into a story only they can tell. Well that’s not 100% true. Sometimes the raw material of life formats them. And the plot is not always pretty.
When I was a young rabbinic student I remember taking inspiration from a traditional source and writing: “Everyone is born unique into this world; every soul is sacred.” I still believe that. We all have a purpose whether divinely ordained or a combination of genetic material modified by our environment, or both.
Anne V. Coates was a film editor. She won an Oscar for “Lawrence of Arabia”, discerning through her art that Peter O Toole’s blue eyes are an oasis in the desert and the Arabian sun is as much a star as Omar Sharif. She worked through more than than 30 miles of footage. Her genius was finding the right cut and freezing it into eternity.
There is a reason we are alive. Tonight a ball drops in Times Square at midnight. It will finish its descent with the numbers 2019. Sylvain Bromberger would ask us to find time this year with why questions that would help us discover the hidden arc of our lives. Anne Coates invites us to run the footage of however many years we have lived and find the clip worthy of an Oscar. Not melancholy but celebration. Not disappointment but enchantment. Not sadness but joy. Each of us is on a journey towards infinity. The lives we live are the most precious gift the universe bestows.