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Saturday, April 09, 2011

The last words of Pancho Villa.

There is a lesson for us all, in the supposed last words of Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary who died in 1923.

Pancho, whose real name was José Doroteo Arango Arámbula is supposed by some, to have said: "Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something."

Now, others think he died too quickly under a hail of bullets that hit him nine times, in the chest and head, to have said it at all, but let us consider it, as if it were actually spoken, for it sums up his predicament eminently. Pancho Villa no doubt, like most of us, looked forward to a future filled with planned deeds and contributions to life, that, in an instant, were never to be. One moment he was a living, breathing, thinking, planning, feeling, achieving man. The next moment he was dying. There is a sobering lesson in this for us all, whether or not we are prominent enough to be likely to motivate someone to assassinate us. Too many people assume, for themselves a long, healthy active life. Yet, there is no telling what one's future life will be like - how long, how short, how active, how fulfilled or how frustrated. Anyone's life can, of course, end in an instant. That is the peculiar truth of being alive: death is never further than the next femtosecond, potentially.

At the end, Pancho, supposedly, became conscious that death was imminent. He had not time to reflect on what his last words should be. He had not time to issue any more commands (he was a revolutionary General). He had not time to give any instructions of any kind. He had only time to die. Instead of true, intended, last words, he had only the opportunity to ask his followers to make something up for him - for he himself now no longer had the time for such reflection. He wanted, in this version of events, to leave behind some lasting impression, something that would echo on, after he was gone. His final thought, therefore, was a wish for immortality, at least, of the memic kind, if not of the by then impossible biological kind. He wanted his memory to live on, yet was unprepared for the last moment. He was not ready to die.

The question here is: how many of us are ready for our own passing? Some of us are lucky, in a way, to be given forewarning, by some predictable illness, but others die suddenly, in accidents, or like Pancho Villa, murders, or more mundanely sudden heart attacks or strokes. There may be no warning and no opportunity for final words and deeds, no chance to seek any lasting image in posterity.

The answer, of course, the only answer there can be is to proceed with one's plans and creative and other intentions, as rapidly as possible, making no assumption about how much time there might be to do so. This presents a problem to those whose intended works or deeds require many years - but in such cases, the initiator must judge the likelihood of being around to finish the works, before beginning them or ask whether other works, of lesser extent, might be wiser to embark upon.

In a way, Pancho Villa did leave a mark on posterity by his supposed final words: he gave us an opportunity to reflect on the awkward fact that many are completely unready and prepared for death when it comes, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, as he was. In that sense, perhaps, there is a message in the circumstances of all deaths: they have lessons extrinsic to any intended by the one who passes.

I have many life projects. I don't know whether I will complete them all, in the unknown time that I have. I hope, however, to do the most important of them (though one never knows whether life will allow that). I would like to thank Pancho Villa, for reminding me of where one's efforts should be placed and how life should be conducted, so that it is most likely that what is truly important is accomplished, in whatever time one has.

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