But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near...
"To His Coy Mistress"
When he rode out of the palace for the first time at age 29, accompanied only by his charioteer, the prince saw old age, disease and death, also for the first time. Deeply affected, he asked "What joy or pleasure can people take in life, knowing they must soon wither and pine away?"
The answer, of course, is simple. We take joy and pleasure in life, as well as indulging in less ennobling emotions such as resentment and envy, because we're able to ignore the brute facts of our imminent demise. We're able to simply put our coming decline and fall out of our minds most of the time, and go with our lives as if they'll last forever.
I'd suggest, however, that doing so is not such a good idea.
It's true that life goes on (until it doesn't) and that there's no point in ruining the present by moping about the future. But how differently would we live our lives, how would our behavior change, if we lived as if each day was our last? Would we have time then for greed and petty resentment, envy, and the implied ingratitude of taking for granted those we love?
Death relentlessly comes closer every day. The final resolution of life, with all its joys, sorrows, and ambiguities is certain. I need to keep that in mind as much as possible if I'm going to use what life is left to me to full advantage, and not piss it away with trifling and irrelevant bickering and pointless disputes over imaginary supremacy, such as indulging in "king of the hill" type mind games.
I see what the prince saw, and it teaches me to do good today rather than worry about who's right, or fret over what I consider incorrect definitions of "God."
Later in his life, when he had matured and become a great teacher, the prince admonished us to "no longer lose ourselves in vain speculations and profitless subtleties...let us practice good, so that good may result..."
Quotes are from "The Teachings of Buddha," compiled by Paul Carus, 1915 (Reprint ed., New York: St. Martin's, 1998).
Illustration by O. Kopetzky.