This week I’m looking at death and lessons it can teach us about living well. Thank you for journeying with me, and special thanks to the subscribers who make Stop & Think possible.
Every human being will experience death. In fact, part of what makes us uniquely human is that we live with the awareness that we are dying.
Still, death is difficult for us to face. It disturbs and frightens us, and thus we often avoid or deny it, until death visits us.
Christian faith invites us to face death with honesty and hope. It calls us to reflect on death’s meaning and to live in light of what it reveals. Ecclesiastes says, “Death is the destiny of every human; the living should take this to heart” (7:2). Paul wrote, “I face death every day” (1 Corinthians 15:31).
The reflections below are a brief attempt to take death to heart, to spend time facing death and learning from it rather than pushing it away. I’ve found that death’s teaching is both heavy and healing.
First, death ends human power.
When we die, we lose all of our earthly power. Our bodies decompose. We can no longer speak, act, or affect change in the world. Our capacity for control, influence, and achievement evaporates.
Friedrich Nietzsche insightfully analyzed how humans are often driven by “the will to power.” When we look beneath the surface, so much of our projects, religion, and politics are motivated by our desire for power.
But death exposes the futility of living for power. Hannah Arendt wrote in Love and Saint Augustine, “Death destroys the existence that man has built on his own will.” Arendt states that “the function of death” is precisely “to uncover” that we are not autonomous and self-made beings. We are dependent creatures whose power is always limited and quickly passing away.
Death teaches that the end of the most powerful will be the same as the weakest among us: a total loss of human power.
Second, death ends human knowledge.
Humans proudly call ourselves Homo sapiens – the wise creature. We live in a data driven world powered by endless research and exploding technology. The key to this system is knowledge.
But death forces us to face an ultimate irony: we are certain that we will die, but we have no human knowledge of what happens to us after death, if anything. What we know is that we don’t know. None of us has been on the other side, and when we are, we don’t have the power to report back. As such, death is our greatest known unknown.
The human quest for knowledge has plunged to the depths of subatomic matter and soared for light years out into space. And yet the end of each one of our lives is marked with unknowing. Death humbles our quest for knowledge.
Third, death is the end of human possession.
Loss is perhaps the most disturbing implication of death. Many of us spend our lives collecting possessions, skills, accomplishments, reputations, and relationships. We invest extraordinary effort, money, and anxiety to secure them. And yet death strips us of all of them.
Death forces our hands open and requires us to let go of all that we have. All of our little and big expressions of “Mine” are undone and reversed by death. In the face of death, nothing is truly mine – my exclusive possession or private property. As the 1938 film says, “You can’t take it with you.”
Death empties us of our power, knowledge, and possession.
Fourth, the end of death can serve as a new beginning of life.
To these observations, Christianity adds a heavy but ultimately healing claim: we need to die in order to truly live.
In Christian thought, the origin of death is creation’s failure to receive life as God’s gift. God is the source of all that we are and have, and the decay of death is what happens when we cut ourselves off from God. This separation distorts our relationship with power, knowledge, and possession, leading to the agony and brokenness within us and between us.
But in stripping us of these idols, death returns us to our original condition before we were born: no power, no knowledge, no possession – just total dependence on God.
And thus death presents us with a new possibility: to make our lives an act of total surrender to God’s gift-giving love. When we release ourselves to God, we entrust ourselves to the Source of all life. And the same God who loved us and gave us life when we were nothing (birth) can love us and give us new life when we are nothing again (death). Death faced with faith in God undoes itself for new creation.
Jesus placed this paradox of dying in order to live at the center of his teaching. He declared, “Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39).
The temptation of vulnerability is to hold onto our selves more tightly and to preserve our selves at all cost. Thus, we make power, knowledge, and possession the idols of our lives. But Jesus calls us to actively surrender our selves to the point of death and make this the beginning of following him – God’s gift – into everlasting life.
From a Christian perspective, the reality of death should not lead to a life of denial, indifference, or terror but a life-long practice of surrender, gratitude, and love. Death can lead us to tenderness in power, humility in knowledge, generosity in possession, and hope when we are reduced to nothing.
My life is not my own; I live it in gratitude to You and share it with others in love, until You make all things new.
Each one of us will experience death. Let us take death to heart and face it with honesty and hope. Doing so can relax our drive for temporary power, knowledge, and possession and inspire a life-style of surrender, gratitude, and love for other dying people.
“Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Death, from whom no-one living can escape.” St. Francis, Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon