I think about death a lot. I figure anyone alive does, but I could be wrong about. I think I’m more impatient than most people. I’m always abnormally interested in how things are going to end.
Anyway, death is horrible. It’s an unthinkable affront to everything that’s dear to us. We all know that.
So it makes me wonder: Why do we have to do it? And why is it so final? And how come people who die are sooooooo totally gone? All this time, and no one’s come back from the dead to tell us anything about it? How can it possibly be that after eight zillion years of humanhood, we still have no idea what actually happens to us after we die? We can think we know, we can believe we know, we can hope we know — but the bottom line is that we can’t know know. We just can’t see from here to there.
So my question is always: Why is our system the way it is? What purpose can there be in constructing a system designed in such a way that when humans stare into the great yawning abyss at the edge of life, all they can see is nothing? If God (or nature) is good, then why or how is that good?
The biggest fact about life is that it ends, right? So to me it just stands to reason that that means there must be something about the fact of death that’s meant to teach us something huge about life.
And I think that something is that just like we can’t define death, we’re not supposed to define life. I think we’re supposed to take the ever-present fact that we don’t know what death is, and then turn around, and use that same not-knowing, that same mysterious wonderment, to inform and shape the way we live.
When you define something, you kill it, insofar as you rob it of its potential to ever be anything else. If I say that I utterly know you, that I know everything about you, then I have denied you the very nature of your personhood, which is to change, to respond, to grow. I’ve closed off what I should see as ever open. I’m saying there’s no more mystery to you. That denies both you and me what amounts to the very essence of life.
All of us are infinitely mysterious, and infinitely complex. And so is everything else in the world. That’s what makes the world and our experience in it so deeply, insanely fascinating. If we go through our lives acting like we already know everything there is to know about life, then we ruin the experience of it. Then all we can be is bored and angry and restless — because then we’re telling life what it should be, instead of letting life tell us what it is. Then we’ve closed ourselves off to the only thing that makes life fascinating, which is our lack of comprehensively, or absolutely, understanding what in the heck is really going on out here.
As awful as death is, I don’t think we’d want it any other way. I think the fact that death remains such a constant and immediate mystery to us is exactly what we need in order to make sure that we never forget that every moment of life is meant to be — and is certainly most richly appreciated as — a constant and immediate mystery of the exact same sort. Just like we can’t define death, we should never be too quick to define any aspect of life. I think death is there the way it’s there to constantly remind us of this critical living tool, this ever-liberating perceptive construct that we are meant to employ.
(Okay, for the record: I’m not saying that I don’t believe in the Christian version of what happens after death. I’m saying that even though we Christians have an idea of what that experience is, the fact remains that we have zero information about what the reality of that experience is. And we should use that not-knowing to inform our living. Same as everyone else.)