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2 Comments | Nov 20, 2018

The Challenge

Library“So you believe there is no point to life if you don’t die at the end of it,” MacDonald says, punctuating the statement with a sip from his bourbon. Ice cubes tinkle in the highball glass as he sets it down on the end table. Henderson, his companion in the chair opposite, sits for a long, silent moment, letting the statement hang, a legally concise distillation of his own more nuanced philosophical assertions of the past few moments. The only other sounds in the library are periodic crackles from the fireplace and the quickening breaths of a cold front just now arriving outside the big front window.

MacDonald’s statement is neither rhetorical nor a mere exercise in eschatological musing, though the pair, fast friends since their college days, now nearly sixty years past, spend no shortage of time engaging in precisely this sort of dialog. Indeed, questions surrounding death—both the events leading to it and those that might follow afterward—have been much on the minds of both men, each now well into his ninth decade.

“I’m simply suggesting,” Henderson says, leaning forward to encourage the fire with a poker, “that if we lived forever we’d take the whole thing for granted and thus render it meaningless.”

“Or that our decisions concerning how to go about living that life would no longer matter,” MacDonald replies. “After all, if you know you’re going to live forever, you can do whatever you like. Where are the consequences of your poor decisions?”

“Well now you’ve gone and eviscerated the entire thesis,” Henderson says. “It may well be that it’s precisely the opposite. If you and I, mere mortals that we are, choose to make poor decisions, we will lead a miserable life, but one that lasts only a few decades. If, though, you are immortal and a bad decision maker, you may well create for yourself an eternity of hopelessness and poverty. Hell, mess up badly enough and perhaps you could get yourself thrown into prison for all eternity. Now wouldn’t that be an ironic thing.”

“Wrong again, my friend. As an immortal you have the benefit of limitless time to recognize the error of your ways and take steps to set things right.”

Henderson ponders this rejoinder, then peers at his near-empty drink. He rises and walks to the bar against the far wall. Dropping fresh ice cubes into his glass, he looks back in MacDonald’s direction. “Seems like the sort of thing that’d eventually drive a man mad.”

“What? Immortality? People have dreamt of it since the dawn of time. Fountain of youth. Ponce de Leon. All that falderal.”

“But think of it,” Henderson replies, retaking his seat. “Never mind that you’d have to endure the awfulness of watching your loved ones wither and die while you linger relentlessly on. You’d be in a perpetual state of pursuing a better life than the one you have. And no sooner would you believe you had it nailed, when along would come someone else whose life seemed somehow more desirable than your own, and off you’d go in pursuit of that. There’d be no end to it.”

“So, best that we only get the one shot at it then. Is that it?”

“I wouldn’t say the idea of immortality’s an entirely unattractive one. Only that it’s certainly not all upside.”

“You know,” MacDonald says, taking another sip, “a depressing thought occurs to me. If there is an afterlife, it will be a terrible thing indeed if you have to spend it in the physical shape you’re in at the moment of your demise. If it turns out Heaven is nothing more than a big nursing home in the sky, I’m not so sure folks’d be all that keen on the idea.”

“As far as I am aware, none of the various holy books address that particular nuance of eternity, though I confess it is a sobering thought. Still, the Bible does talk of the torment of Hell as being about heat and thirst and all sorts of physical unpleasantness. Seems to me that in order for that to be the case, we’d need to be there in corporeal form. After all, you can’t physically torture an ephemeral spirit. And surely if that is the case, then Heaven must, as well, be the sort of place where one enjoys the pleasures of the flesh, wouldn’t you think?”

“Except that we’re told that it’s precisely those pleasures of the flesh that’ll get you turned away at the pearly gates. I tell you, the whole story just reeks of inconsistency. Take avarice for example. The good book talks of streets paved with gold as though that should be a compelling argument for wanting to spend eternity there. But surely the attraction of gold is reserved for only those possessed of great avarice, not exactly the sort you’d expect to receive an invitation. I gave the whole ridiculous thing up years ago. Couldn’t make heads or tails of it.”

Henderson considers this point for a moment before waving his hand dismissively. “We are ruminating on matters that are well above our theological pay grade.”

McDonald grunts in grudging agreement, raises the glass to his lips, replaces it on the end table.

“Tell me something,” Henderson says after a lengthy pause. “How long would you estimate we have known each other?”

“No estimate required, my friend. I recall it as though it were yesterday. We met in third-period physics class when we were sophomores at Columbia. I know because you were sitting behind me during Professor Billings’ midterm, shamelessly attempting to copy off my exam paper.”

“Outrageous slander!” Henderson says with mock anger. “I had already completed my exam and was only looking over your shoulder to determine what was taking you so long.”

“Now there’s a bit of revisionist history,” McDonald replies. “Remind me again which of us it was who managed an A- in that class and which only passed by the skin of his proverbial teeth.”

“I wonder if in your dotage you have begun to exaggerate your level of academic achievement. Pray tell, if you were such a scholar in physics why did you end up going to law school?”

“My advisor assured me that among my many talents was a gift for argument.”

“That and the fact that a JD could be achieved in three years whereas a physics Ph.D. would have taken you more like seven or eight.”

“Or four in your case.”

“Yes, well, philosophy is an abstract field, so unlike, say, physics or chemistry, in which propositions must be irrefutably tested and proven, in my case all that was required was copious pontification.”

“A skill at which you have few rivals, I dare say.”

“So we have known each other for a very long time. On that much we agree.”

“More than half a century, much as it pains me to admit it.”

“Well then, Counselor, I propose a challenge for you.”

“You know, Professor, that I am always up for a worthy contest.”

“It will,” Henderson says, “require that you exhibit both candor and equanimity.”

“I accept the terms of your proposal and await your challenge.”

“Know also, my friend, that it may not be without a measure of psychological pain.”

“Oh, for the love of God, man, get on with it. Did you never learn that once you’ve made the sale you should stop selling?”

“Actually, I’d never heard that pithy bit of folklore, but it sounds wise enough.”

MacDonald does not offer a rejoinder, but simply sits, glass in hand, awaiting whatever Henderson is about to proffer.

“Well,” Henderson says, removing his glasses and pointing a stem assertively toward his friend, “the wager is that—”

“Wait, wait,” interrupts MacDonald. “No one said anything about a wager. If that’s what you’re on about, then what shall be the terms of the wager?”

“Ah, fair point, and a rare oversight on my part,” says Henderson. “Hmm, what indeed? A bottle of the loser’s finest bourbon to the winner!”

“Now there’s a fine joke!” says MacDonald, “for there you sit already drinking my finest bourbon. Where’s the downside for you in such a transaction?”

“All right, all right. How about this then? Loser prepares dinner for the winner.”

“Now those are terms I can live with,” says MacDonald. “And may I request in advance your stunning pasta carbonara.”

“You are a presumptuous fellow indeed,” says Henderson. “Now shall we get on with it, or shall we spend the rest of the evening negotiating terms?”

MacDonald nods silently.

“All right,” says Henderson. “My challenge is a simple one. Given the half-century or so that we have known each other, it is fair to surmise that we know nearly everything there is to know about one another. Therefore, the test is to come up with some morsel about your life that I am not aware of, and vice versa for myself. Needless to say, this is an honor system sort of affair, since only you can judge whether or not you were aware of whatever I put forth, and I trust you will acknowledge this in a forthright manner. And, of course, you can trust me to do the same.”

“There remains only the matter of who goes first,” says McDonald.

“Simple enough,” replies Henderson. “Since it’s my challenge, I concede the opening gambit to my worthy opponent.”

“Spoken like a gentleman, and I accept your generous offer,” says McDonald. “So, you say, it is up to me to reveal something about my life—my history—of which you are unaware.”

Both friends sit silently for a long moment, each contemplating the other. At last, McDonald leans forward, sips from his bourbon glass, and speaks.

“I applied to every Ivy League university and was turned down by all but Harvard.”

“Oh, good God, man,” Henderson says, half laughing. “You’ll need to do a better job than that if you’re to avoid cooking my supper. You’ve told me that story at least a dozen times, right down to the details about the date the rejection letters arrived in your mailbox. January seventeenth, nineteen hundred and forty-seven, in case you doubt the veracity of my answer. And I’ll bet you still have all of the letters stashed away in your desk someplace.”

“Fair enough,” McDonald replies. “Perhaps my memory isn’t what it once was after all. The question is, can you do better?”

“I imagine I can, only let’s keep it simple for the moment, lest I crush your spirit too quickly.” Henderson pauses a moment, grins at McDonald. “All right, it’s true, I was copying answers from your exam in that first physics class. I was always a wretch at science. Still am, in fact.”

“Well, it’s gentlemanly of you to concede the point after all these years, but surely that doesn’t qualify as any great revelation. You claimed to be pondering why I was taking so long on my exam, yet each time you glanced over my shoulder, you returned to writing feverishly in your own booklet. That’s what we attorneys would regard as prima facie evidence.”

“Luckily for me, the statute of limitations has long since expired on my academic malfeasance,” Henderson adds, a hopeful note in his voice.

“Ah, that’s where you’re mistaken, my friend,” MacDonald replies. “In fact, I am duty bound by my professional oath and the university’s honor code to report your admission of malfeasance to the board of trustees and you may expect to have your diploma revoked in due course.”

“Well, if that’s how it’s going to be, they’d better hurry up and get on with it. I don’t expect to be around all that much longer.”

“For God’s sake, Robert. You certainly are in a funk today. First, all that business about immortality, and now you talk of shuffling off this mortal coil as though it were some imminent occurrence.”

“Oh sorry, you’re right,” Henderson says, “I’m not trying to be maudlin or anything. It’s just, well, ever since Jason announced his retirement last week, I can’t help but reflect. Don’t get me wrong—he’s a wonderful son, best a father could ask for. But when our children are old enough to retire, what on earth does that make us?”

“What it makes us is ancient as dirt, my friend. There’s no denying it. But surely surviving to see your children live full lives beats the alternative.”

“Oh, no question. I’d much prefer to sit here enjoying your fire and drinking your bourbon over decomposing in a box someplace.” Henderson rises and steps toward the mantel above the fireplace. He turns and raises a hand toward MacDonald as though about to make a point. But he only sighs and lowers his hand without saying anything further.

“You know,” MacDonald says, taking a quick sip and adjusting his position in his chair, “I think I’m beginning to understand your problem.”

“Oh God, you’re not going to start getting Freudian on me again, are you?”

“Heavens no,” MacDonald replies. He rises and steps to the bar once more. Ice tinkles in his glass. “Here’s the thing. I’ve always regarded myself as a man of science and reason. A lifelong attorney whose measure of success can be succinctly boiled down to banalities like courtroom victories and fees billed. You, on the other hand, are a philosopher, a man of deep thought, steeped in the collective wisdom of the ages. I wonder if you don’t lack an objective measurement scheme for your own life. Oh sure, you’re tenured, department chairman, and all that. By any objective measure, your life has been a rewarding and worthwhile one. And yet …”

“And yet what?” Henderson says, lifting an inquisitive palm.

“I wonder if perhaps you’ve immersed yourself in so many different philosophical systems—Greeks, Romans, Asians, Europeans—that you’ve never thought to construct a belief system that is well and truly your own. Oh, God knows you’ve published a mountain of papers and books espousing ideas, debating this or that school of thought, but what is it you actually believe, Robert? What are your guiding principles?”

“Well one,” Henderson begins, smiling, “would have to be maximizing the quantity of your liquor that I consume while preserving my own cache.”

“And a laudable goal it is,” MacDonald replies, “easily quantifiable at that. But surely something more lofty than bourbon has governed your life to this point.”

“Seriously?” Henderson says, feigning a grim look.

“Seriously,” MacDonald replies. Henderson steps away from the fireplace and retakes his seat.

“The late great Thomas Aquinas said in his Summa Theologica ‘this is the first precept of the law, that good is to be done and promoted, and evil is to be avoided.’ I believe that was Aquinas’s pithy way of saying ‘don’t be an asshole.’ That pretty much sums it all up for me.” That’s also, by the way, why I gave up religion. I found that I didn’t need deities or holy books in my life in order to know that I shouldn’t be an asshole to my fellow man.”

“Would that all of humankind could come to that stark realization,” MacDonald says. “Which, come to think of it, is a wonderful segue to my revealing something that’s sure to win me a dinner … It is still my turn, if I’m not mistaken.”

Henderson nods and gestures his agreement.

“Suppose I were to tell you that I dated Gwen during freshman year—for about a month as I recall.”

“Oh, good Lord, man,” Henderson says, “do you imagine I could remain married to the woman for sixty-four years and not know that? You must think I’ve gone soft already.”

“So she told you then.”

“Of course she told me, on our first date for God’s sake. ‘How on earth’ she said … wait, let me be sure I recall this right … ‘How on earth could anyone go out with a physics major?’ she said. ‘They’re so damned cold and analytical.’”

“Oh, cold and analytical, is it?” MacDonald replies. “Not a torrid and flamboyant philosophy major.”

“And there’s a good chance she was being overly kind. Remember, she knew by junior year that we were friends, so naturally she wouldn’t have wanted to offend.”

“Cold and analytical indeed,” Macdonald mutters beneath his breath. He takes a sip from his bourbon. “Why, I have half a mind to march my cold analytical ass right down to the club and have a word with your better half.”

“By all means,” Henderson says with a laugh. “She’ll be happy to corroborate my account. Oh, and while you’re out, don’t forget to stop off at the grocery store and pick up whatever you’ll need to prepare my carbonara tomorrow evening. Be sure to get a good fresh pecorino romano … and not that pre-grated business. I prefer it freshly grated.”

MacDonald rises from his seat, walks once more to the fireplace where he lifts the poker and rearranges the logs unnecessarily. He turns and points the poker in Henderson’s direction in mock threat.

“Pecorino it is,” he says, replacing the poker. He steps toward the bar, collecting Henderson’s empty glass en route. As he drops fresh ice cubes into both glasses, a stiff wind outside rattles the window. A knot pops in the fireplace.



Jeff Wilkinson 1:22 pm - 21st November:

Enjoyed it, Brian!

BKS 7:01 pm - 22nd November:


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