La Cosa Più Importante Nella Vita

What would you say if someone came up to you in the street with a mike and video camera and asked, “What is the most important thing in life?” A young, Italian YouTuber I follow did this, and I was surprised not so much by people’s responses but that the question completely stumped them. If you watch the video below, you’ll see what I mean. People were flummoxed, embarrassed with some shying away from the interviewers.

Their answers were nothing out of the ordinary: love, family, happiness. “Amicizia” (friendship) was mentioned a number of times, mostly by young people who had to check with their friends before answering. One woman specified “family serenity.” She had the look of someone who has experienced family strife, and, really, who hasn’t? Older people were inclined to say money, jobs, health. One woman said peace. A man declared eating to be the most important thing. I suppose he’s right on a certain level. How about drinking?

A young, biker type said beer and “figa.” You’ll have to watch the video for a translation, although I am not judging. Far be it from me to cast stones, the sins of my youth being many (Ps 25:7). Thank God there was no Internet back then.

Admittedly, their being caught by surprise caught me by surprise. The question is one of the most basic you could ask, something that would come out of the mouth of a four-year old. Yet, as one guy observed, it is “abbastanza difficile” (pretty difficult). What makes it difficult is that people act as if the answer were so evident as not to be worth considering. So, they don’t. But how do you go through a day, a week, a year without having an answer? I guess the longer you let it go, the easier it is to forget. So much for absence making the heart grow fonder.

If you don’t have an answer to the question, then what are you doing? Following everyone else? Sure, it’s important to listen to other people and see yourself through their eyes. That’s how you get a sense of the social self, which is required for living in a community of two or more. But it becomes dangerous if you let that perspective take over. After all, you enter this world stage left and exit stage right all on your own.

If you do have an answer, then the same question applies: what are you doing? Or, more to the point, why are you doing what you’re doing? Given that the only thing in life that doesn’t have plasticity is time (i.e., once it’s gone, it’s gone), why isn’t ninety percent of what you do focused on the answer to your question? In other words, why waste time?

Three things I know. First, many things can be accomplished if you break them down into steps and take one step at a time. You can travel miles simply by putting one foot in front of the other and having patience. Anybody who has been to a Chinese restaurant and cracked open a fortune cookie knows this. I have seen it work in my life and the lives of others. I have also seen the opposite, and the opposite is painful.

Second, the greatest obstacle to putting one foot in front of the other is the thing at the other end of your foot: you. This came up in class the other day. “Is life difficult?”they asked. I looked at the floor, stroked my chin, and answered with as much sincerity as I could muster, “I don’t know.” I let the silence build and added, “If your answer is yes, then you also have to ask why is it difficult? Most of the time, it’s because you make it so!” Naturally, that’s not counting things beyond our control like human trafficking and earthquakes.

Third, tempus really does fugit. I can attest to it advancing as a spiral rather than a line, having had numerous do-overs and opportunities to relive the past (see A Special Day in Barcelona). Still, it runs through your fingers like water. It’s helpful to know this while trying to be present to the present, which is the only way I know of going “back” in time.

I was surprised that nobody in the video mentioned children, faith, or things like honor, hope, and courage. But I also know from family and personal experience that gli italiani are practical people. They might see these virtues in a fine, cold-pressed olive oil or homemade wine.

Actually, the fruit of the vine would have been a great answer.

You want a piece of me? See Robert Brancatelli. For top image, go to Italiano Automatico. Note to self: “parlor” is now used only for two things: pizza and dead people.

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