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September 22, 2017

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A unique Tomb Sweeping Day lesson

Having lived in Taiwan now for over 25 years, you'd have thought I had long ago become more than familiar with the ebb and flow of our local holidays. You know what I mean: Dragon Boat Festival with those scrumptious "chung tze" in the spring, and Mid-autumn Festival with the moon cakes in the fall. And then the Chinese New Year, the eating and drinking and the fast spate of days when people in my profession try again to discover the semblance of a personal life.

So you would have thought that Tomb Sweeping Day ("Ching-ming chieh") this past week was more or less just another tunnel to pass through. We've been there before, right? And we'll be there and do it all again next year, yes? Nothing new here at all.

As a matter of fact, however, this year's Tomb Sweeping Day caught me by surprise.

In just these past hours, I dashed off some words to three students I am close to this semester. In each case, I began by saying, "I hope my message today will not make you uncomfortable, for that is surely not my intention." I told my young friends that I was recalling conversations in which they had revealed to me that they had lost their fathers not so long ago. Two sad tales of cancer, and a third story of a long, exhaustive illness that devastated the family resources and left emotional wounds that are still healing.

I told my students that I hoped they could forgive me for barging into their lives at tomb-sweeping time to say they were in my heart in a special way. I was wishing and praying for peace for them and their loved ones.

Martin Heidegger was right in "Being and Nothingness" when he insisted on the importance of death in our search for the meaning of life. How strenuously many of our cultures try, he said, to deny the truth, to tranquilize the truth, to run away from it. We are all going to die, and how we approach that inevitability, presumably by the quality of the decisions we make now, today and in the coming days, yes, how we face and deal with our dying will define in the end who we are as persons and what we are made of. Tomb Sweeping Day this year found me contemplating the philosopher's words again.

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