Ooooh, that smell; can you smell that smell?

Death seems to be in the air this week, even though Samhain and All Saints/All Souls days are still over a month away.

First, there’s the buzz surrounding the new Sean Penn-directed movie Into the Wild, about the true story of a young man who dies in the Alaska wilderness while on a trip to find (or prove) himself. The youth in question, Christopher McCandless, hailed from Annandale, VA, where several of my best friends in college were from and not far from where I went to graduate school; he attended Emory University, just down the road from where I now live (and where I’m an instructor in the Continuing Education program). McCandless hiked into the wilderness right about the time Fran and I met; he died right about the time we were figuring out that we loved each other. His death was entirely unnecessary — he died in the summer, for heaven’s sake; he didn’t even have a map with him, he obviously didn’t bother to learn the skills necessary for long-term wildnerness survival.

Then yesterday a friend emailed me about Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon who has achieved some renown for his work on virtual reality. Earlier this month he delivered a valedictory lecture on the eve of his all-but-certain death from pancreatic cancer. Pausch is only about six weeks older than me; although as of this lecture he was obviously far more physically fit than I am (he does a few one-handed pushups for the delighted audience), doctors told him last month he only has three to six good months left, before the cancer steals first his health, and then his life. In his lecture Pausch is funny, self-deprecating, and positive: his message is all about living your life to the full and making your dreams come true. Maybe not so different from what a Joel Osteen or a Tony Robbins has to say, but certainly poignant and powerful given his backstory. Given how successful Pausch is, not only professionally but personally (he has a picture perfect family with three small kids), his premature end seeems all the more unfair, and his dignity and humor in the face of it all the more remarkable.

My friend Phil Foster once told me that shamanism is all about death. I think that’s true of all authentic spirituality. Death can be absurd (like McCandless’) or tragic (like Pausch’s), or it can simply mark the end of a good long life (like my mother’s). But one thing is certain: we all have a date with it, sooner or later. I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s comment about death: “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once.” With all due respect to the bard, I think he got it backwards. Cowards spend their entire lives running from death, while the valiant fear not to face it; they befriend it and so it transforms their lives. McCandless may have been stupid in how he chose to walk into the wilderness so blindly, but his fool’s death still reveals much to us today about how the quest to live a big life often involves taking big risks. Pausch doesn’t waste any time pitying himself for his imminent date with mortality; but that’s because he has prepared well for death by living well.

I suppose most of all us fall somewhere in between suicidal risk-taking and a life fully lived. We don’t all need to be as successful as Randy Pausch and we certainly don’t need to be as self-destructive as Chris McCandless. But maybe if we risked just a little bit more and pushed just a little bit harder to achieve a little bit more success, it would be a good thing. And if we did, we could count on death — walking alongside us, every step of the way.

Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Peggy Goforth

    I remember the news stories about McCandless and later saw reviews of the book by Krakauer but never read it. Now that Sean Penn has done the film it will be more public than before. I read Sean Penn’s interview about how he read the book twice and felt he had to tell this story in film. As I read some of the backstory about McCandless I began to wonder and now I lean toward the thought that he was suffering some kind of psychotic break. It doesn’t lessen the tragedy of young man who died needlessly and pointlessly.

  • Treasa

    Not easy to write about Deah without being grim but you pulled it off.
    I’ll make time to read more of your writing.