We all have one. We talk, write, tweet, and post about them all the time. In fact, I remember as a child yelling the insult “get a life!” to someone who got on my nerves, who needed to butt out of my business, or who was just plain stupid. But this week has taught me that “getting a life” is not as easy or insult-worthy as I once imagined. Tonight, life feels short and small and fragile. Most of our lives feel like whispers in comparison to the roars all around us — roars of busy-ness, irritation, traffic, jobs, screaming kids, annoyances, heartbreaks, dishes, laundry, and days that come and days that go: the constant repeat of living in the world that we created for ourselves.
Yet, as fleeting as it feels, life is so incredibly precious. On one end, there are those who wish that they could breathe for a moment or two longer than they will. On the other hand, there are some who think that are invincible. Teenagers road race, while the elderly struggle to hold back the clock for just a minute more. In some ways, we all live, hoping that we can keep going for a day, a week, or a month more.
And then something happens.
Just this week, I distantly watched a young family suddenly lose their husband and father: one week, he was fine and the next, he was dead. Just last week, I learned that a mother-type to me was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. She will fly from Boise to Seattle for treatment. Just tonight, I heard that a dear former teacher lost her fiancee’ to suicide.
In the middle of living, death knocks on the door and it suddenly feels like death is all around us. Some people console themselves with the “hope of heaven” and the idea that life doesn’t end in death. This isn’t a concept that has settled well with me as so little of it makes sense. But there is still a twinge inside that wonders what happens when we die. Metaphysical poet John Donne seemed to know, and he probably explains this best when he personifies and speaks to death in Holy Sonnet 72.
“Death, be not proud,” he quibbles. “…though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.”
I wish I had Donne’s conviction. To me, death is still mighty; it is still dreadful. Because sometimes, when you’re right in the middle of it, death feels like it is everywhere.
But Donne was right. In fact, he speaks to death directly, reminding it that it is “…slave to Fate, Chance, Kings, and desperate men.” Death doesn’t choose its victim; life does: people get hit by buses (fate), people get cancer (chance), people are condemned to die (kings), and sometimes, people kill themselves (desperate men….and women, as it were). Life happens to all of us in the best and the worst of ways, and sometimes, life kills us. Or it kills someone we love. And those moments terrify me.
But Donne didn’t think that they should. “Why swells’t thou, then?” he asks. Why, death, do you think that you are so strong when you dwell among the weakest entities on earth — in poison, disease, and war? When something as simple as a potion can mimic you? Why so cocky, oh death? When in reality, if we truly believe that there may be something more than all of this, you, death, will die along with the rest of us? Doesn’t eternal life actually imply that death is nothing more than a blinking eye?
Donne seemed to think so. He described the process of death as not actually dying at all. It was, as he explained, simply a moving from one life (this one) to the next (the eternal one). It was nothing more than merely closing one’s eyes only to open them in eternity. “One short sleep past,” he said, “we wake eternally, and death shall be no more, death thou shalt die.” Death isn’t to be feared, and truly, neither is life because life never ends.
Sometimes, that is good news. And sometimes, it’s not. Every fiber of my being wishes that there was some way that I could carry the burden that those I earlier described will carry over the next days, months, and years. I do not think that death is nearly as weighty as is the life you have to keep living after death has happened to you. I have no answer for any of the questions. I can’t pretend to know how anyone feels, and I don’t know the moment my life will tip over again.
But I do have hope.
I have hope that this is not the end of life — not for the dead, and not for those who live. Hope reminds me that babies are born, that children laugh, that lovers find each other, that people commit to lives well-spent, that students study and teachers teach, that music plays and dancers move: that ultimately, life is so much more than the moment it ends. Life exists in the moments we choose to actually live rather than to merely survive, in the moments we put down our devices and truly engage, in the moments that we treasure and create memories, and in the relationships that make all of this worth living.
So, answers or not, I will hold on to hope. I hope that you will too.