Column: 20 paces from the scaffold: How will we spend our final minutes? - Titusville Herald: Country Letters

Column: 20 paces from the scaffold: How will we spend our final minutes?

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Posted: Monday, March 4, 2019 5:00 am

Believe it or not, I occasionally skipped books in high school, too. 

I am not the only one. I am guilty of nursing my way through English classes on Sparknotes and guessing “c” on multiple choice tests because a friend told me it was statistically more likely to be right. 

I have done my time haughtily asking the question every high school student champions: “When am I ever going to use this again?”

As it turns out, seven years later, out of high school with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, I find myself diving back into the books I missed in my arrogance.

When am I going to use the tragic beauty of a woman who would suffer great shame of “The Scarlet Letter” or the sardonic suggestion of eating babies in “A Modest Proposal?” How can Shakespeare or Fitzgerald impact me today?

It turns out my mother was right all along when she said that I was only 15 and didn’t know everything. I use the great literature I have studied every single day — as a journalist, as a pastor, as a brother, as a friend, as a hapless romantic and just as a human being who wants to get the most out of life.

I am not going to peddle any books off on you in this column. It is safe to read without any hidden guilt trips. Every once and a while, I am driving my car and listening to an audiobook and I just have to pull over to the side of the road and type quotes down on the notepad on my phone, repeating it over and over again so that I get it just right.

That is what you will find here. When I read, I stumble across ideas sometimes that make me laugh or cry or think. I do have some naive hopes that my passions will catch and that perhaps you will read things you are passionate about and want to share, too.

One of those moments that had me parked in a no-parking zone on the edge of the road with cars flying past at 70 miles an hour happened just this week. I was listening to “The Idiot” by Fyodor Dostoevsky(which I am only a little ways into, so hold your spoilers!), and I stumbled across a remarkable scene that you need to hear about. 

The main character is telling a story to a bunch of young women he just met about a man who was sentenced to death by hanging. The man was one of the last people to die and had five minutes left to live. The experience that follows happens “20 paces from the scaffold.”

As Myshkin tells the story, the man who was about to die “felt that he had so many lives in those five minutes that there was no need yet to think of the last moment.”

Myshkin goes on to share that the man split his final five minutes up three ways — he would spend two of them saying goodbye to his comrades, another two just thinking about the meaning of life and the final minute looking around at the world he would leave.

Then came the bit I really loved. Don’t get me wrong, the “live like you are dying” sentiment that is now so cliched was moving and all, but I feel like I am a bit numb to it by now. 

But Myshkin said this of the man: “As he took leave of his comrades, he remembered asking one of them a somewhat irrelevant question, and being particularly interested in the answer.”

That isn’t in the Tim McGraw song about dying, or in the Queen Latifah movie about dying. 

Still, what if that is more true? What if, 20 paces from the scaffold, our thoughts would not be on the big things we had missed out on, like skydiving or summiting Mount Everest? What if we would talk to one of our friends, and ask them a question of little importance, and really care about their answer?

I think that when we are 20 paces from the scaffold, our hearts will dwell on the small things that we should have cared about all along. Things like really caring about the words coming out of peoples mouths, even when their words don’t actually affect me; things like looking around and really noticing the world; things like taking time to just think about my life — those are some things I will wish I had spent my wasted minutes on. 

One last thing. The man in Myshkin’s story was reprieved just before he was to be hanged. Twenty paces from the scaffold is as close as he ever got. Still, the girls asked Myshkin if the man lived his life differently after that.

He did not. Myshkin said that the man wasted many, many minutes after he was granted what seemed like an eternity. He should have known better. We know better, now.

Let’s you and I do better than that man.

Anyhow, that is one moment I had this week where I allowed someone else’s story to influence mine. This time, it was the story of a fictional man in Russia written by a one of the great masters of literature in the 19th century. Tomorrow, perhaps it will be Dr. Seuss. 

I believe it is important for us to spend time hearing other people’s stories, whether they are factual or fictional. Great literature shows us a window into the lives of men and women who have lived in a different world than ours, or perhaps never really lived at all. 

Still, their worlds and words can make our world a richer place.

Brown is a staff writer at The Titusville Herald and a 2016 English graduate of Grove City College. He can be reached with any questions, comments or book recommendations at tbrown@titusvilleherald.com

 

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