We're All Going to Die
Sometimes a comedian inspires you to stop laughing and live like there’s no tomorrow.
Back in the late 70s I had the good fortune of seeing Steve Martin in person, complete with his trademark (at the time) white suit, bunny ears and arrow-through-the-head. I don't remember many of his jokes that night, but near the end of his show, he spoke a line that I'll never forget.
"Well, we've had a pretty good time here tonight....considering we're all gonna die someday!"
The audience, including me, exploded in laughter. But I wonder how many in the audience, like me, also paused just a second later to reflect on the fact that we had all just laughed at a joke about our own deaths. On one level, it was hilarious; on another, the joke was a cruel one.
Let me say right here that death is not funny. I have lost several loved ones over the past few years, one a few months ago and the latest only last week. And I guarantee you that nobody was laughing.
But Steve Martin was correct. I am definitely going to die. Diseases or accidents might hasten it, but there is a 100% chance it will happen. The older I get, the more I realize how limited my time here on Earth really is. Several friends my age and younger have already gone before me. My time here is not only finite, it is running out, so I guess it's time to talk about it.
Let’s talk first about the irony. Even though death is a certainty, almost every time death enters my life I act as if it is unusual, unexpected and unfair. I suppose that’s natural, since for most of us, deaths of friends or relatives are not everyday occurrences. But what strikes me as more ironic is that each of us (including myself) acts as if it will not happen for a long time. We simply assume that our days will go on and on.
I’m not talking about the brave individuals with fatal diseases who press on with their lives, determined to live as fully as possible. I’m talking about reasonably healthy people (like me) who live as if we’ll never run out of time. We dream, we plan, we entertain ourselves, we indulge ourselves. We procrastinate, we criticize, we complain, and we sometimes hurt others, acting as if there will always be tomorrow to make things happen or to make things right.
The big question that arises is of course, "Am I ready to die?" In one sense I am. I've learned enough about justice and mercy to trust God’s promise that those who hope in Him will not see eternal death. But on another level I am not ready at all. Not even close. Even at my age I still have a long list of things I want to do before I go. Here are a few of them:
1. Celebrate a 50th anniversary with my wife. I’ll have to live into my 80s to do it, but that’s well within the realm of probability.
2. Give my daughter away in marriage. Actually, I'm in no hurry for her to get married, but if someone's going to give her away, I'd like to be the one to do it.
3. Write a book. I just finished co-writing a book with a friend of mine, but I'd like to leave behind one that I can call my own. I have no idea what it would be about, but it's on my list anyway.
4. See the Grand Canyon. My eyes have seen a lot of grand natural wonders, but not this one. I look forward to being wowed.
5. Do more to help a community rebuild after a devastating storm. I spent a few days helping with hurricane recovery, but I want to be more personally involved in making a difference to someone impacted negatively by a natural disaster.
Okay, enough with the small stuff; here’s the thing I want to do that’s going to be the hardest of all (deep breath):
6. Listen more.
It may sound simple, but it is very difficult for someone who has spent his career speaking mostly in one-way conversations to stop talking. I talk to TV audiences, I talk to live audiences, I talk on recordings and I’m talking right now. Unfortunately I tend to transfer that “one-way” habit into my everyday discourse, which usually results in a whole lot more use of the mouth than of the ears.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. Every time I open Facebook or Twitter I see a lot more talking than listening. Most times when I witness a political, moral or spiritual debate, both sides seem to try to outdo one another in a lack of listening. Sure, it’s a fact that we’ll never see eye to eye on everything, but that fact is the very reason why we need to listen more. That’s because like it or not, we are all in this life together—the young and the old, the able-bodied and the handicapped, Republican and Democrat, black and white, LGBTQ and straight, rich and poor.
Despite how we sometimes treat one another on social media or even face-to-face, I don’t believe we were put on this planet to hate one another for our differences. Granted, it doesn’t come naturally for us to constantly celebrate the fact that we are all unique creatures (I can’t remember ever commending someone for strongly disagreeing with me). But if we can’t do that, maybe we can at least celebrate what we have in common.
For example: each of us has talents and potential. Each of us has something to give but is also in need of something. Each of us is wise in at least one area and ignorant in another. Each of us is scared and broken in some respects and fearless and whole in others. Each of us is loved by a Creator Who has given us the power and privilege to love and be loved. And since we’re all going to die someday (and most of us before we want to), shouldn’t that make us want to use our limited days a little less judgmentally and destructively? Is it really worth the vitriol and anxiety just so we can prove how smart we are or why the other person isn’t? (I’m asking myself these questions.) Why do we often assume the worst about those who disagree with us? And why do we think the world owes us the kind of respect we can’t seem to give others?
Why do we “unfriend” (literally and figuratively) those who don’t share our every opinion? Do we really want to live in a bubble, insulated from all viewpoints but our own? Why do some think every expression of opinion necessitates an attack on someone? And why do others presume that every expression of an opinion is an attack? Why are some of us so proud of our prejudices, saying, “Because you are a (fill in the blank—Democrat, Christian, Atheist, not of my generation, etc.), you have nothing to say to me?”
I don’t know about you, but bigotry (racial, religious, political or social) is not what I want to be remembered for. So that means I need to listen more before I comment. I’m not saying I don’t believe in truth or that I think all opinions and actions are equally correct. I’m saying that I have to at least try to put myself in another’s shoes before I judge. It means I need to look in the mirror a lot more than I point fingers. It means I need to concern myself less with being right, and concentrate more on being sympathetic. I don’t want to wait until the brink of death before I fully realize the power and reward of treating others the way I want to be treated. Such a failure would be among the cruelest death jokes of all.
And not even Steve Martin could make that one funny.
© Nick Walker 2019
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