“They think they’ll live forever,” said a friend, who’d just watched her teenage daughter and some friends dash across a wide street in Chicago when the don’t walk sign had been lit a couple seconds. They got to the other curb just ahead of a rush of cars speeding through the green light. I remember those days when life seemed unending, but I also remember being hit, once in a while, with the knowledge that I would die.
Reading stories about elderly atheists who said they didn’t fear death, I thought they had to be lying to themselves or to the writer. Now, much older, I know how they feel. At a certain point, you might feel you’d had a good run and gotten from life all you could reasonably expect, and that’s that.
Maybe I’ll feel differently on my death bed, if I’m blessed to have one. But I think I feel what the atheists felt. It’s not my own death that haunts me.
The Deaths That Haunt Me
Some years ago I mentioned to the oldest of our two sons that if I hadn’t asked his mother to lunch after church that day, he wouldn’t exist. I asked him how he felt about that. He pointed out that if he didn’t exist, he wouldn’t know he didn’t exist, so the thought of never existing didn’t bother him.
But what did bother him a lot was the idea that his younger brother might not exist. The same argument applied. If Jonathan didn’t exist, he wouldn’t know Jonathan didn’t exist. But even so, Jonathan’s not-being he felt was a thing that should not be. It just felt wrong.
Even if we can happily face the end of existence for ourselves, we feel that those we love should live forever. The idea that they would slip from the cosmos just feels wrong. Whether we feel they’re eternal because we love them or we love them because they’re eternal doesn’t really matter. The answer may be both anyway.
The horror of death isn’t so much that you die, but that others die. The tragedy of your death is that for friends and family you’re one of those others who shouldn’t die. They feel about you the way you feel about them. And because you will die, they wish eternity for you whether you care or not.
That’s all true, but it doesn’t change the fact that in this life one second someone you love is here and the next second she’s gone. I’ll never be able to buy a book for my dad. I can’t post pictures of us together on Facebook. My wife will never again be able to call her mother to tell her about the kids and hear her talk about her book club and the old peoples’ lunch after church.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, but in this world, those we love die.