Death is a big piece of so many of the contradictions that are inherent in the experience of being human. Death is the only thing that any of us are absolutely guaranteed, and yet somehow it manages to take us by surprise.
We live our lives and make decisions according to our own values hierarchy. In the face of an infinite array of choices, we make a choice. Day in and day out, minute by minute, we choose how to best spend our time, resources and energy. Often, this process becomes so automatic that it’s reduced to background noise and we don’t even think about it. But at some level, the choice is always there. For every act we take and every decision we make, there are an infinity of things we didn’t choose, paths we didn’t walk. We strive to make the best choices, and doing so requires that we have some sense of what matters – what is most important. And we have the capacity to prioritize like this for one simple reason. We have the ability to make value judgments about our choices because we know we are going to die.
If our lives extended into infinity, there would be no need to prioritize. It doesn’t matter which of the options we choose today if we can explore all of the other options in a vast, infinite future. Our time is valuable only because we know that time itself is available to us in a limited supply. Our knowledge of our inevitable death means that it matters whether we make this choice or that choice. With a limited time span, there’s always the possibility that an opportunity we don’t take may never come again. Death is the very thing that imbues our moments with meaning.
I understand all of this logically, and yet as I grapple with the harsh reality of my husband’s sudden and unexpected death, I find myself approaching things from entirely the wrong direction. Over and over again, I get caught in the trap of trying to find some meaning to assign to Dove’s death. Initially, I tried to find a way that his death was somehow my fault. Was there something I could have done to prevent this? Am I being punished in some way? After exhausting all of those avenues of thought, I began exploring ways that his death could have some positive meaning in my life. Dove’s death has necessitated a lot of change for me, and big changes always offer big opportunities for learning and growth. So I spent some time trying to make that my meaning. Dove died because some higher power wanted me to make these particular changes and learn these specific lessons. There is some grand design and intelligent logic behind his death. The loss of my husband is, somehow, a sacrifice for something greater.
That thought was comforting, and any comfort was a welcome respite from the grief and rage and fear and pain that was tearing me apart from the inside out. But the notion that Dove died because God wanted me to learn and grow had no long-term staying power. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about human growth and development, it’s that real learning arises from within us. An authority figure telling us what to learn and when does more harm than good. And I had successfully created an authority figure for myself, some nebulous, external higher power who was dictating my life. I had recreated my childhood experiences of church and school, right in my very own brain. This was a problem. Because suddenly, rather than responding to quiet internal cues about my own ever changing needs in the midst of intense grief and pain, I was looking externally for signs of which choices would be morally correct. I did busywork at times when it would have been most helpful to simply rest. I forced myself to try and sleep when all my brain wanted to do was put thoughts and feelings down on paper long into the night. In my attempts to go through the grieving process in the right way, I slammed the brakes on my own emotional processing.
And I did all of this because I was approaching the problem from the wrong direction. I tried, over and over again, to figure out the meaning behind Dove’s death. It was my futile attempt to understand it. To explain it. To make sense of it. I did not want to admit that death, like life, is a thing that exists beyond the bounds of rational explanation. I did not want to admit this because that would mean admitting that Dove died simply because death is part of life. Whether we die at four, at forty, or at a hundred and four, every life is finite. But I did not want to admit that, because it would mean accepting on an even deeper level that my life is finite. And that Dove is really and truly gone. And so, I stayed stuck in the false dichotomy of believing that either Dove’s death had some meaning, or that it was completely meaningless. That either there was a reason for this exquisite pain I was experiencing, or there was no reason at all. I had temporarily forgotten that death is a thing beyond reason. It is the context in which reason exists. It is the lens through which we can experience meaning in everything else.
Dove lived for forty three years. His life was considerably shorter than either of us had predicted or anticipated. But linear time is only one measure of a life. By any other measure, Dove’s life was amazing and full and brimming with joy. When I met Dove, I was inexorably drawn to his deep passion for life. He found such delight in the beautiful, the incredible, the silly, and the absurd. He showed me how to live my life with a constant sense of curiosity and wonder. With Dove, the most commonplace and mundane elements of life took on new color. I had never met anyone who packed more living and learning into the day-to-day experience of their life. And this joyful experience of life was combined with deep philosophical and theological discussions about what life is and why we are here. Dove knew, on a very deep level, that he was going to die someday. And that knowledge moved him to keep his attention constantly focused on his values. He loved and served his community with all his heart and soul, and he learned and learned and learned. And then he died. And his death was a jarring interruption – a crashing halt that has sent reverberations through our entire community. It’s easy to feel that because Dove’s death was so impactful, that it must have been wrong somehow. But I’m realizing that Dove’s death had the impact it did because of how he lived. His death, whenever it came, was guaranteed to impact whatever community he happened to be living and working in, because loving and serving his community was like oxygen to him.
Dove died, and I am alive. And I am slowly realizing that it is not my job to figure out the meaning of Dove’s death. That is not the question the universe is asking of me right now. The question before me has to do with my life. I, too, will die someday. But I am alive today. No future is guaranteed, but I do have this moment. I have an infinite array of choices, and it’s time for me to choose. And I choose to learn, to serve, and to love. To find the infinite joy in the mundane and the absurd. To live every day of my life fully, because a day will come when this will all be over. My life will come to its end, and the time will come to let go of this life and join Dove in finding out what it is that comes next.