I’ve always been fascinated by death. The reality that I’m going to die is a major motivating factor in my life.
I may be a little strange. When I graduated from high school, my predominant mood was one of foreboding. I had passed this milestone, and now I was another step closer to the end. Today I’m graduating high school, tomorrow I’ll be turning fifty. Soon I’ll be six feet under.
In the middle ages, these kind of thoughts would have been normal. Medieval society was fixated on the reality of death, summed up in the Latin term Memento Mori: “Remember that you have to die.” For European Christendom, all of life fell under the shadow of death. The present took its ultimate meaning from the reality that it was all about to end.
American society, on the other hand, is almost ridiculous in its optimism. We couldn’t be more different from the death-focused culture of the Middle Ages. We view death as something to be avoided. Even to mention it is often seen as morbid at best, bad luck at worst. We should focus on the present. Better yet, focus on the future. Because it’s only getting brighter.
Despite my innate tendency to reflect on my own mortality, I’ve been deeply formed by my death-denying American upbringing. I’ve seen death’s icy gaze, but I haven’t welcomed it. I’ve fought it. Fled it. My remembrance of death has often served as an impetus to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
I’ve placed great pressure on myself to accomplish something worthy of the time I’ve been alloted. Death could come at any moment. That makes it all the more important to justify how I spend my days. The worst imaginable outcome would be to look back from the moment of death and see only a life wasted.
This attitude has spurred my ambition, creativity, and exploration. It has also been a heavy burden to place on the countless mundane moments that make up an ordinary life. I’ve spent much of my time feeling guilty for not being more heroic, more daring, more prepared to smile back with pride from the brink of death. Rather than making life important, my relationship with death has made it urgent.
My relationship to death has begun to alter. For most of my life, I’ve experienced death as a foe to be outwitted and conquered. I’ve sought a life that laughs in the face of its end. But something has changed. Slowly, subtly, surprisingly, I am discovering death as a friend.
A strange sort of friend, to be sure. But I can no longer see death merely a constraint that forces me to live life to the fullest. Death is revealing itself as an integral part of my existence. To truly live, I must learn to die. Not just at some sudden moment in the future, but right now. Each day, I must learn to release my life and be handed over into death.
I’m seeing the way a thousand little deaths accumulate. Losing a job. Giving up on a dream. Letting go of one passion to seize another. Moving to a new city. Surrendering singleness for marriage, and selfhood for parenthood. These are some of the little annihilations that make room for something new to emerge. The deaths that make real life possible.
This process of dying is more powerful than my own self-directed living. This way of dying provides me with glimpses of the cross of Jesus. In surrendering my life and will, I begin to taste the cup that he drank from. My hopes, certainties, and assurances are stripped away one by one. Nothing is left except a long walk on the road to Emmaus.