Living the Dash
Issue 90 March 2012
When you look at a gravestone or a biographical note, you will see the birth and death dates separated by a dash ‘–’. As I am still alive, my entry would read: 4th June 1971 –. We do not yet know what the date of my death will be. At the moment I am living the dash, the in-between. The dash is my life. It is all our lives.
The question we have to ask ourselves is simple, “What do we want that dash to stand for?” Do we want it to represent our love for others, and their love for us? Will it stand for a life of selfless kindness? Will the dash be recognition of choices well made in the pursuit of goodness? Or will the dash be simply that? A mad, unconscious rush from birth to death, which neither recognises profound truths, nor even has the time or the will to try to search for them. Are we mindful of the depth and profundity of the dash, or merely dashing around from place to place, more existing than really living?
It is quite frightening that such an inconsequential punctuation mark can represent our entire time here on earth, but then it is quite a terrifying thought that our entire life on earth can go by in such a dash—time slipping through our fingers, like water or sand. There is a poem about The Dash by Linda Ellis. She asks, “So, when your eulogy is being read / With your life’s actions to rehash / Would you be proud of the things they say / About how you spent your dash?”
It is an uncomfortable thought, especially if we have awoken just enough to realise that things are not quite right in life, but are not quite sure what to do. The answer to that exists with another punctuation mark, the full stop. Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” So we have to examine what habits are currently filling the dash. If our habits are not moving us to spiritual, emotional and physical wellness, then it is time for a full stop in order to start a new sentence, or a new paragraph, even a new chapter in our lives.
This is not easy. Dostoevsky would have us believe that “the second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing but the habits he has accumulated during the first half.” There may be some truth to this, but we cannot remain victims to our past. Strength and determination allows us to create new habits. The Prophet Muhammad liked good habits, reminding us, “The best deed in the sight of God is that which is done regularly, even if it is small.”
But how exactly do we go about building good habits? Studies have shown that we need somewhere between 21 and 66 days to install a new routine into our lives. After we make the initial commitment, such a move is helped by firstly being specific and secondly setting up memory triggers. So, whilst a general commitment to “get closer to God” is good, it will not be easy to make it a habit. We need to be more precise. Thus, “Saying all my prayers on time,” can be made into a habit, helped by setting up alarms on our mobiles, for example. Then, habits need repetition, and a daily frequency is the best. The greater the gap between events, the longer it will take to instil a habit.
Keeping good company is also key. If you are trying to change your life around, then you need people who will support that change. The Prophet said, “Shall I tell you a thing by which you can obtain good in this world and the Hereafter? Be with the assemblies of those who remember God. Be busy in remembrance of God when you are alone.”
The date after the dash will be imprinted on our gravestones faster than we can imagine. Our bodies age, and it will barely seem a moment since we were young, and thus we have to make every day count. We have to minimise the bad days, the wasted days, the days we would rather forget. Instead, we have to build a routine of awareness of God in everything we do; from the food we consume to the entertainment we enjoy, from the company we keep to the family ties we avoid, from the way we earn to how we spend. God-consciousness needs to be our overarching habit. In this way we can make the dash count, and it will stand for us on the Last Day, when every second of that dash will be recalled for us, as we are called to account.
The dash may be an inconsequential mark. But we should make sure that what it stands for has meaning and purpose.