One of the things that is very important for every person to know is that you are not alone in the universe. You come here alone and you leave alone, but the rest of the time, the in-between time, you’re not alone.”
These words were spoken late in life by Bill Russell, the great basketball center of the Boston Celtics. He not only brought 11 championships to the city but was a fearless pioneer in the Civil Rights movement. I recently finished a two-part documentary on his life and career on Netflix and have been reflecting on his statement.
“You come here alone…” I remember well the birth of our first daughter. After months of hiding in a womb, the doctor lifted her into the open air. She fixed her eyes on mine with an expression that seemed to say, “Where am I? Who are you?”
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that existence can feel like we are “thrown” into this world, often feeling a bit disoriented; sometimes newborns have just such a look.
Do you remember the first time you knew you were alive?
I was four or five years old. I’d taken some eggs from the refrigerator into one of the bedrooms in our house while my mother was busy. I held an egg out in front of me, looked at it carefully, and dropped it on the beige linoleum floor; I can still see the yolk floating in the puddle of clear egg white. My mother passed by the door and was shocked. “What are you doing??” she said.
“I wanted to see an egg drop on the floor,” I said.
She rescued the other eggs and came back to clean up the mess. I remember realizing I’d done something that had upset her but also remember the fascination I experienced performing my experiment. This was my first conscious moment when I was aware I was a “me.”
The great Harvard child psychologist Robert Coles wrote a fascinating book, The Spiritual Life of Children, based on interviews with kids from Islamic, Hopi, Jewish, Christian, and secular cultures. He concluded many children have spiritual experiences before the age of ten — private moments of insight and wonder.
We come here alone, all our lives experiencing our own unique thoughts.
“You leave alone…” We all take our first breath when we are born, and at some point, we will each take our last.
Early in my career, I heard stories of how the timing of death can vary in interesting ways. There are situations in which a person close to death may somehow choose when that last breath will occur – hanging on for hours or days until a loved one arrives at the bedside and then only then let go. Other times family members or friends will keep vigil at the bedside for hours so that the person will not die alone. They step out of the room for a short break, only to return and find the person has died. Hospice workers often prepare a family ahead of time by saying this is not an unusual occurrence, and if it happens, they shouldn’t feel like they’ve failed – perhaps the person just wanted to die in solitude and was waiting for that moment.
It’s a moment known only by those who experience it.
So “we come here alone and we leave here alone, “said Bill Russell, “…but the rest of the time, the in-between time, you’re not alone.”
Bill Russell had great individual accomplishments in his life as an athlete. But he also had a significant impact on American society. He was a black man breaking the color barrier both as a player and a coach. Like Jackie Robinson, he often faced hostile crowds, criticism, and threats to his life. But he loved his teammates, his family, and the people who joined him in his struggles. In so many ways, he was not alone but part of a large community.
I’ve presided and attended many memorial services in my lifetime. It’s always amazing to see what impact we have on one another.
Here we are, day by day, living and breathing, going about our daily activities. Children and adults of all ages and all backgrounds are with us and around us in this “in-between time.” Some are family, some are friends, and many may be strangers. But we are all in this together.
As you’ve been reading this, think of how many children may be having that first moment of awareness, and how many people may be taking their last breath. Each experience is unique and personal, but it’s all part of life. Right now, you and I are in the “in-between time.” It’s a blessing to reflect on the mystery of life together.
Good food for thought…. And certainly true. Thank you, Steve.
I love this so much. Very timely. Thank you for sharing your writings! Such a gift!