“Since the day of my birth, my death began its walk. It is walking toward me, without hurrying.” Jean Cocteau
Our two closest companions throughout our lives, said John O’Donohue, are Death and the Unknown. Yet we spend enormous amounts of energy every day doing everything we can to convince ourselves that they aren’t really there.
We strive to control our circumstances and our surroundings in an attempt to minimize all perceived risk of danger. We plot out the trajectory of our lives as if we had absolute control over what will happen to us. We drive down a narrow winding road nearly oblivious to the fact that death accompanies us along either edge of the path. All it would take is a slight turn of the wheel in either direction and we would encounter him. A brush with Death, we might say, as if it were a highly unusual and rare occurrence. But death is present with us all the time, walking right there beside us from the moment we are born into the world until the moment we cross with him to the other side.
It’s the same with the unknown: Nobody knows what’s going to happen in the next hour, or even the next minute. We’ve no idea what’s around the corner on that narrow winding road. Yet we love to pretend we do, because otherwise we’d be forced to confront the naked truth that life is a bit more like a Ping Pong ball in a hurricane than we’d like to admit. We are really in control of very little in our lives.
This can be a terrifying realization.
But it can also be very freeing.
How does knowing you will die set you free to live true to who you really are?
I think how we choose to engage (or deny) this deeper reality of our existence goes a long way toward determining just how much joy and expansiveness we experience in life. One who spends great energy denying death is there with him or striving to control every detail of his life so he feels protected and safe from harm will have little gratitude for blessing, because on some deeper level he believes all the good he has he accomplished himself. Likewise, when bad things do happen, he will have a much harder time turning them into something beautiful because their very presence shatters his delusion of control.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do all we can to create the life we want for ourselves and those we love. To the contrary: my work in the world is to help people do exactly that! God has gifted each of us with the “dignity of causation,” as John Eldredge puts it. Our choices and actions have effect in the world. They make a difference.
And, there is still a great deal out of our control.
I think a big part of personal fulfillment in life comes out of recognizing this dichotomy, and rather than resisting it or pretending it isn’t there, choosing to join with it in a kind of graceful dance. You can see this dance in many who have come to know suffering in their lives. Their bodies may be weakened by long illness or great loss, but their faces are always full of glory. You sense their eyes are reflecting a light from a source you cannot quite see. They’ve discovered the beauty of surrendering to what they cannot control, while still deeply holding their hearts in a place of absolute freedom and choice.
Sometimes you lead your life; sometimes your life leads you. The thing is, whichever happens, to choose what you will become in the face of it.
What is your relationship like with Death and the Unknown? How do you feel knowing these two companions are walking beside you through your life? Does the thought of them terrify you, or set you free?
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” ~ Mark Twain