The origins of this saying are uncertain. A few websites attribute it to boxer Joe Louis (1914-1981), while a more impressive site attributes it to African-American blues and jazz composer Tom Delaney (1889-1963).
Because we don’t know its origins we can’t be sure of its intended meaning, but when I heard it growing up in Tennessee it was never used to criticize someone’s lack of faith, which you might guess at first glance. Rather, it was used to criticize someone’s lack of will – people who wanted to have something but who didn’t want to do the things necessary to obtain it.
There are many things to criticize about traditional Southern religiosity, but at the end of the day it’s a very practical religiosity. Sunday may be a day of rest, but an ass or an ox is a pretty accommodating metaphor. Witchcraft may be a terrible sin, but if you need to dig a well, call a dowser first. Have faith in God, but “put legs on your prayers.”
Perhaps my memory is selective, but I don’t ever remember hearing this saying used in victim-blaming. Instead, it was used to call out peers – many times while gossiping about them, but sometimes face to face. Laziness was the greatest of sins, particularly to those with personal memories of the Great Depression.
As a Pagan who neither expects heaven nor fears death, “everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die” doesn’t have quite the meaning it did for my low-church Protestant friends and family. But the thought behind it (work hard and do what’s necessary) is just as strong as it ever was.
Growing up I wanted to be a corporate executive. I wanted a big plush office like I saw on TV. I wanted a big fast luxury car. Mainly I wanted to be In Charge – I wanted to give the orders, not take them. I didn’t expect to get there right out of college, but I did expect my rise to be quick and steady.
It took four years to get my first promotion. It took an additional five years to get the second. By that time there were more than a few people younger than me who were ahead of me – I was clearly off the fast track for the big office. I blamed it on going to the wrong school and picking the wrong major. I blamed it on changing jobs and starting over after two years.
I blamed it on not wanting to “die” – on being too lazy to do what needed to be done to get to the “heaven” I wanted.
It took a lot of years to figure out that being a corporate executive would be hell, not heaven. It took even more years to figure out my true calling is being a Druid and a priest. This work is still work, and some days it feels like dying (not many, but a few), but I do it gladly, because I want to do it.
Young people are frequently accused of “entitlement” – of wanting heaven without having to die to get there. Honestly, though, I see this in the old and the middle aged just as much as I see it in the young. I see people who want leadership positions without being willing to do the work leadership entails… work that must be done whether you feel like it or not. I see people who cry for community who are unwilling to work through the imperfections and annoyances that exist in any collection of humans. I see people who want to be priests and magicians who are unwilling to learn those crafts by mastering their basics.
I’ve seen some of this in the discussion around whether or not you have to be initiated to be a Wiccan or a witch. I am neither Wiccan nor witch and therefore have no stake in any final decision (yeah, right – like there’s going to be a decision) not to mention zero interest in arguing about who’s doing it wrong. My local spiritual home (Denton CUUPS) is an open, egalitarian, non-initiatory covenant group. But I’m also part of several initiatory traditions and I recognize both the power of an initiatory current and the wisdom that comes through studying and working toward initiation.
There is value in claiming a role and then working to embody that role more fully over time. But eventually it comes down to the very simple question of “can you do it or not?” There’s no shame in saying “I can’t do that.” The question is whether you’re willing to do what must be done to learn how to do it, and to practice it enough to do it well.
I see lots of people who want to be witches and Druids and priests and such. I see far fewer who are willing to do what’s necessary to become competent witches and Druids and priests and such. Honestly, though, I’m not very concerned with those folks.
I’m concerned that those who really want to do it well understand what needs to be done, that they can find good teachers and other resources to help them do it, and that they’re not discouraged by those who claim the titles without having earned them.
Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. Everybody wants to be a witch but nobody wants to apprentice under the odd old lady who insists you memorize plants and keeps telling you to meditate under a tree. Everybody wants to be a priest but nobody wants to study old stories, keep seemingly arbitrary geasa, and pour expensive bottles of wine on the ground.
Except, some of us do.