Meditating On Death

You’re at a party. The music is on, there is plenty of food, and quality chilled beverages are at hand. The lights are tastefully dimmed, the host is gracious, and the people in attendance are remarkably interesting. You are in your element. People are even laughing at your jokes. You’ve long forgotten the paper you should be writing, the customers you’ve served all day and the next big planning meeting at the office. The only thing you think about beyond the party-at-hand is the long sleep-in you’ve promised yourself tomorrow.

And then BAM! Nothing kills a party like death-talk.

It’s clear our Western culture is geared towards not confronting our finitude. All our skin firming lotions, age reduction creams, anti-wrinkle formulas and gym memberships speak to this, as do the piles of collagen and silicone, our worship of youth and our pervading disdain for the elderly. We are unwilling to confront the realities of gravity and time. Hey, no one wants to disturb the party and wipe the botox smile off our faces, right?

And when the frightening subject does emerge, we prefer an obtuse reference. We talk about “death,” but seldom about our personal death—my death and your death. But it is a meditation on the unavoidable reality of our personal deaths that can be the catalyst for an extraordinary existence, an intentional living.

There is a scene in Fight Club where Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) holds a gun to a convenience store clerk and, after asking him for his wallet and address, demands to know what the man wants to be, what he wants to do with his life. You can imagine the fear and anxiety racing through the clerk’s mind. This career guidance counselor is packin’ heat. The clerk responds by saying he wanted to be a veterinarian. Tyler says he will check on the clerk in time, and if he isn’t on his way to being a vet, he will kill him.

Undoubtedly, it was a life-changing experience for the convenience store worker. Up until that event, we can presume he was, like many of us, just one of the masses—whether among the masses of people who profess to follow Jesus or not. Yet it is the confrontation with death—his death—that awakens him from the collective slumber of the masses and shakes his consciousness into the creative reality for which he was truly meant. Durden (and his gun) give this man permission to take hold of his life—to assume responsibility for his particular and unique existence.

Philosophers talk about “thrown potentiality.” It’s a fancy way of saying that as long as you’re alive, you have the opportunity and the responsibility for making decisions about what your life will look like. In fact, they go so far as to say that the real essence of who you are can’t be determined until you die, because a good life isn’t one’s last actions; a good life is a good life and a good death. While we have breath, we are piles of potential.

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This potential we have, and the responsibility that goes with it, can cripple us. It makes us anxious and paralyzes us. If it is up to me to decide and enact who and what I am to be, then I might be more comfortable ignoring the question entirely. And so we “convenience-clerk” our lives away—unwilling to take risks and assume responsibility for the consequences of living our own life. We merely “attend” life; we trade life in on existence. And we live with a sneaking suspicion that there is more—that this “party” is actually a wake.

And that’s exactly what we need, an awakening! We need a meditation on our unique deaths so that we might take hold of our unique lives. We need space to consider our finitude so that we can decide wisely, or recklessly, what will fill the pages of our lives—between the bookends we have no say about. We need a meditation on our expiration so we can echo the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes: It’s all meaningless! Abandon yourselves to God, love selflessly and invest in something of consequence!

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