Some psychologists opine that part of the reason why we stand in line for our tall Iced Caramel Macchiatos and work our fingers to the bone to acquire the latest sports car is to suppress, at least for a while, the nagging little voice telling us that we’re all going to die.
In fact, in ancient Rome, that nagging little voice was quite literally a nagging little voice! As a Roman general rode a golden chariot in his triumph parade, a slave stood beside him and whispered in his ear “Memento mori”—Latin for “remember that you will die”—a not-so-subtle reminder to the soldier that, despite the glory he receives today, he will eventually be worm food. In other words, don’t let this go to your head.
Westerners like us do not like to think about death. In our culture, coveted youth is to be held on to as long as possible and aging is seen as a personal flaw. Inevitably, though, we all have a date with death and the Church gives us Lent to reflect on our mortality.
Reflecting on death leaves some crestfallen—wishing that they were immortal with an infinite amount of time on earth. Let’s say, hypothetically, that we did receive the “gift” of never-ending earth-bound life. If we followed that premise to its end, would it solve our problems and ease our fears? Here are five observations that suggest it wouldn’t:
1. Everyone gone minus one.
The first draw back to being immortal—beyond death’s grasp—is that YOU are immortal, and no one else is. Imagine seeing everyone you love, die. Your spouse, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, great great grandchildren, great great great.. you get the picture. Everyone gone. But not you. I’m a wreck when my son scrapes his knee or when my daughter has a tummy ache. Imagine how I would feel going to their funerals. Just typing that sentence turned my stomach! I know this is number one in a list of five, but for me, we can stop here. Never ever have the opportunity to be with my children? No thanks.
2. You would be bored stiff!
And what would there be left to do with all this time on your hands? Not much! Have you ever had a weekend where there wasn’t anything to do? There isn’t a movie you haven’t seen, a restaurant you haven’t visited or an interesting book you haven’t read. So you sit home. Bored. Well, multiply that feeling times eternity. Imagine fulfilling your bucket list a billion times over. Visit the Eiffel tower? You did that five times just this past century. See a Picasso exhibit? Go white water rafting? See the Grand Canyon? Check. Check. Check. Been there, done that, and that, and that, and that….This passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes would take on new meaning for you:
“There is nothing new under the sun.”–Ecclesiastes 1:9
Death helps give life its vivacity, urgency and meaning. In the film Troy, Achilles delivers this line to Briseis:
“I’ll tell you a secret, something they don’t teach you in your temple. The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed.”
3. No one to talk to.
All this acquired knowledge would make you, as the commercial says, “The most interesting man in the world.”
You would have acquired such a vast amount of knowledge through reading, conversations and millennia of life experiences. But who could you share this with? “Hey, remember that time Lincoln was assassinated or the time the Hindenburg blew up? Oh yeah, that’s right.” Speaking to anyone would be incredibly dull and frustrating. You’ve lived it all and have had the time to learn everything about everything. Alexa would ask YOU stuff!
4. Time will fly.
My wife and I do not tell our children if we are going on a family vacation or to a theme park until it is just a few days away. Why? Well, for them, it would be excruciating. As a child, your perception of time is that it drags. Imagine when you were a child knowing that Christmas was two weeks away?! Two weeks?! It might as well be two years. Time just goes by so very s-l-o-w-l-y.
On the other hand, as we get older, time seems to go by faster. How many of us have said “the kids grow up so fast!”,”summer is already here?” or “it’s my birthday already?” As an immortal, your perception of time would become incrementally faster infinitely. A loved ones entire lifetime would be equivalent to the time it takes you to make a sandwich. Eventually, generations would go by in a yawn. And by the time you’re celebrating your 1000th millennium, time would just be a blur. Civilizations would rise and fall in the blink of an eye.
5. You’re getting old.
Our hypothetical premise assumes we receive eternal youth along with our prescription for earthly immortality. Imagine if we didn’t. A doctor once told me that if you live long enough, eventually everyone gets cancer. Face it, at 92 years old, most of us won’t be as resilient, as physically active or as mentally sharp as Betty White. Imagine how we’d fare at 192 or 11,192 if our bodies and minds continued to age and deteriorate eternally. Your brain would crumble as it struggled to remember billions of names, dates, places and events. I guess you’d eventually be just a bag of bones or a conscious glob of goo.
Jonathan Swift in his fictional novel “Gulliver’s Travels” describes a group of humans—struldbrugs—who are immortal, but nevertheless continue to age. When they attend funerals, they weep–not out of sadness, but of jealousy.
On Ash Wednesday we were admonished with the line:
“Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
This will cause you to think of your own earthly end. Reflecting about your own death is common and, dare I say, healthy. It keeps things in their proper perspective. The new Jaguar, climbing the corporate ladder, putting things off till tomorrow—Sister Death, as St. Francis likes to call her, keeps these things in check. The Egyptians tried to “take it with them” and failed. A good friend pointed out these song lyrics—”there’s no luggage rack on a hearse.”
As you get older, the thought of your death moves from an abstraction to an ever-increasing reality. The average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.64 years. Statistically, at 46 years old, I have more life in my rear view mirror than on the horizon. Contemplating our mortality, however, shouldn’t be a cause for fear or panic. We needn’t lie in the fetal position convulsing in a full-blown existential panic. No, our belief in Jesus frees us from death’s oppression. Each word in this passage from Hebrews is packed with meaning. Read it slowly:
“Since we, God’s children, are human beings—made of flesh and blood—he became flesh and blood too by being born in human form; for only as a human being could he die and in dying break the power of the devil who had the power of death. Only in that way could he deliver those who through fear of death have been living all their lives as slaves to constant dread.”–Hebrews 2:14-15
St Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, puts it this way:
“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”–1 Corinthians 15:55
As we’ve explored, don’t be downcast this Wednesday, but rejoice. Our earthly death is not the end. Jesus has not called us to everlasting terrestrial life—which would be hell on earth—but to an eternal one in heaven. I’m not sure exactly what that means and I don’t pretend to know. In fact, Scripture backs me up:
“Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love Him.” –1 Corinthians 2:9
But what the Scriptures do describe sounds like heaven on earth!
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”–Revelation 21:4
How about you? As Irene Cara sang in Fame, would you want to “live forever”? Do you regularly grapple with your own mortality? Did you more when you were younger? Older? Share and let’s learn together!