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Death is Calling (But What is it Saying?)

Like most people, I was saddened to hear of Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ passing yesterday. I am certainly no technophile (although I do love my MacBook) and my knowledge of the world in which Mr. Jobs was so influential is minimal, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, based on the little I do know, I marvel at the impact this man and the company he founded have had upon how we live in the modern world. It seemed like Jobs was not only a visionary leader but a genuinely decent human being.  Not a bad combination.

Of course, various inspirational quotes and stories related to Mr. Jobs have been making the rounds on the internet today. I was fascinated to hear, for example, the stories behind Jobs’ adoption as a child, his decision to drop out of college as a young man, and the challenges that came along with a dramatic career change in his 30’s. I have also heard or read numerous quotes from his famous commencement address at Stanford University in 2005. This passage, in particular, has been getting a lot of play today:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

I must confess that I was initially very moved when I heard these words this morning. It is an inspirational passage, full of truly memorable lines. There is much that is good and true about Jobs’ words here. It might be seen by some to be a bit morbid to speak to fresh-faced college graduates about death on their big day, but I happen to think Jobs was right to hold it up to these young people, about to embark upon all manner of different paths. Death is the great equalizer, and we would truly do well to heed Jobs’ words about allowing the reality of death to make us live more fully and inventively, more focused and full of courage.

Having said that, the more I thought about this passage, the more I wondered if it told enough of the story. If the reality of death only leads to our being more committed to listening to our “inner voices” to the exclusion of the opinions of others, if it only makes us more determined to follow our hearts and our intuitions, we will have missed something important about the nature of life and death.

It is quite obvious, after all, that not every product of the human heart, not every human intuition, is worth following. Some inner voices tell us harmful and destructive things or, more prosaically, they tell us banal and useless things that do little to improve ourselves, our neighbours, or the planet. To put it bluntly, our inner voices aren’t always worth listening to. If the reality of death only makes us more committed to ourselves, then it will not have accomplished much.

I think Steve Jobs grasped a profound truth of the cosmos: death is (or ought to be) “life’s great change agent.” The question, of course  is, what ought death be instrumental in changing us into and for what purpose? The desires and intuitions of the individual human heart are far too many and varied to be a reliable barometer here. What is needed is a standard external to ourselves which can guide and shape our intuitions, desires, and longings, validating and nourishing what is good and true and just, and judging what is false, destructive, and life-inhibiting.

“Death is very likely the single best invention of Life?” I don’t think so. Death is the enemy of life, the destroyer of life, the absence and opposite of life. Death is a thief and a destroyer, stealing our time, haunting our steps, and mocking our best intentions. Fifty-six years is not enough—for Steve Jobs, or for anyone else.

But while I don’t think that death is life’s greatest “invention,” I do think that Steve Jobs is right in a very important way. Death can sharpen our perspective and motivate us to use our time well, to give ourselves to what is good and true and lasting. Death can be redeemed, in other words. It can spur us on to live and love well, and, by so doing, to give evidence of our firm hope that life will long outlive death.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Brian C. #

    A man in my congregation passed away yesterday. He was 93 and young at heart. Even for his wife of 60 plus years, their time together was still too short. He was born in Chortiza, Ukraine and lived through some extra-ordinary experiences. A learned and gentle man.

    Just heard Éric Wingender, vice-president and professor of theology at École de Théologie Évangélique de Montréal, passed away as well. In meeting him once during a conference session he was leading, I came away thinking this guy is the real deal – genuine, humble, and passionate Christian.

    “All these people were still living by faith when they died” – Hebrews 11:13

    October 6, 2011
    • This is such terribly sad news. I only met Éric once, but my impressions were identical to yours.

      Death continues to steal…

      October 7, 2011
  2. Thanks for these reflections, Ryan. I appreciate what SJ said about death as a change agent, and your additions, nuances.

    October 7, 2011
  3. God is an everlasting constant. Same yesterday, same today, same tomorrow. I am called to fellowship;oneness with God. How is Mr. Job’s affection for constant change consistent with this fundamental truth?

    “Death is very likely the single best invention of life”. Apart from a belief in the redemption and ressurection of Christian faith, this is an intrinsicly satanic purview. The defence of the murderer. The defence of the destroyer. The defence of all pathologies and hatreds. Was Mr. Job’s committed to Christ? Even if he was and even though it’s true that death will be defeated, it still sounds rather sadistic, even from the Christian purview, to claim death is life’s greatest invention. It would be a faith claim unlike any I have ever heard. Who among us grieving the loss of a loved one would opine about death in such a manner?. It boggles the mind.

    And if Mr. Jobs did not die in fellowship with Christ, may the lord be merciful and just. Nothing else matters now.

    October 7, 2011
    • God is an everlasting constant. Same yesterday, same today, same tomorrow. I am called to fellowship;oneness with God. How is Mr. Job’s affection for constant change consistent with this fundamental truth?

      I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. I don’t see what Steve Jobs’ views about change have to say about what he may or may not have thought about God. Change is part of the world we live in—especially the business world. Living and adapting in a world where things and products change is unavoidable. Are you suggesting that “fellowship” and “oneness with God” somehow entails changelessness on our part? That would seem a rather bizarre criterion…

      Re: “Satanic,” “defence of the murderer, destroyer, all pathologies and hatreds,” etc. That’s some pretty strong language, Paul. It’s quite clear from the context of Jobs’ speech that this was nothing like what he meant by the phrase “death is very likely the single best invention of life.” It seems obvious that he was simply referring to the fact that the spectre of death can help us to more clearly see the value of life. We may not agree with his terminology, but we certainly don’t need to ascribe evil to it either.

      October 7, 2011
    • Ken #

      Paul’s intuitive awareness that “affection for constant change” is inconsistent with religion is compatible with an understanding like that of Eliade that religion is about things eternal, that we live on a profane level in a world marked by constant change, but on a sacred level in one that is not. Paul is backed by significant intellectual support on this point, even while others, process theologians, for example, differ here. His position is even compatible with Emile Durkheim’s view of religion that connects religion with the social constant of one’s community or tribe. No doubt, however, Paul’s intuition comes from the gift of his Roman Catholic faith.

      Darwin, in the final paragraph of Origin, wrote, “… from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” My impression from reading much of Darwin’s writings is that he regarded this with irony rather than affection. I thought of this Origin passage in connection with Steve Job’s words, partly because these words in Origin have inspired many nature writers to express an appreciation for death in the context of admiration for evolution, which is, of course, constant change. But I don’t think that Steve Job’s words here run that deep. I hear in his words a reconciliation with death founded on his belief in progress and contemporary wisdom that emphasizes the importance of being who we really are, of following our own inner voice, or, at least, of living creatively. It is certainly the way he lived. NPR said he listened so much to his own inner voice that he was hard to get along with.

      Referring to Steve Job’s reconciliation with death, Paul asked, “Who among us grieving the loss of a loved one would opine about death in such a manner?” I don’t think Darwin would have. The human mind deals with death in many ways. What helps one person, sometimes hurts another, in the struggle for life that is a struggle with death. Many people in modern times, atheist and religious, have deal with it as Ryan does: “Death can sharpen our perspective and motivate us to use our time well, to give ourselves to what is good and true and lasting.” Of course, there is much difference in opinion about what is good and true and lasting. And there is also difference of opinion as to whether this is worthwhile or absurd.

      As for me, I fear that I face death without defense. It hurts to think about it. That is all.

      October 7, 2011
      • Yes, I am aware of Eliade’s views about the eternal and this general meta-approach to understanding the role of religion. I’m just not yet clear about the connection between these big ideas and Steve Jobs’ supposed “affection for constant (moral?) change.” Perhaps others know much more about Steve Jobs’ views of morality than I do.

        Perhaps nature writers can find admiration or appreciation for death as the engine of life, but I cannot. I don’t think Darwin could either. Based on my limited reading of his story, death affected him in profoundly deep and painful ways. This isn’t surprising, I suppose. We are all in the same boat, as human beings, struggling with death, wrestling with how to live and decide what is good, true, worthwhile, absurd, etc, in its shadow, as you say….

        I agree with your assessment of Jobs’ view. It is a popular narrative, even if I don’t think it is finally compelling or altogether coherent.

        It hurts me to think about death, too. I have never been much good at conceiving of death as a glorious gateway to paradise. I’ve mostly just looked at it with dread, even if my hope that death is a conquered enemy is strong. I’m not sure how strong my “defense” would be, either… My confidence is not in the strength of my defense, but in the mercy and goodness of God.

        October 7, 2011
      • Ken #

        Yes, in the end that is the only defense, if we have any at all: the mercy and goodness of God. For it, we pray, one way or another, confidently or not.

        October 7, 2011
  4. Change is part of the world we live in—especially the business world. Living and adapting in a world where things and products change is unavoidable. Are you suggesting that “fellowship” and “oneness with God” somehow entails changelessness on our part? That would seem a rather bizarre criterion…

    With regard to a moral constant, the way in which it is preposed we live, bizarre or not, I say exactly that. Yes we must adapt to circumstance and perhaps in this way the veneer is changed but substantively we remain the same. Love of God and neighbor must always dictate our response. “This is the whole of the Law”. Perhaps Jesus disregards the specifics of our political and business constructs because they are precisely the kind of superfluos human identities that are dead in and of themselves. If the identity of “inner voice” that Mr. Job subscribes to is not the voice of Christ within me or my best effort at discerning the voice of Christ within, then how can it be anything other than a belief that is antiethical to the call of our Lord. How, in the end,if it is not of God can I deduce it as anything other than evil? What ‘third rail” do you prepose as demonstrably Christian in identity, that is neither good or evil? If it is not of the principality of God of what principality is it?

    Evil infects us all, Mr. Job no more or less than I. What matters is our response. If I cry out to my inner voice and the determinations of my own will apart from God, how am I any different from Adam and Eve, in their response to the serpant in the garden? If I reject the dogma and learning of others how am I to know the historical Christ? What value, according to Mr. Job, would scripture have.

    How would you prepose, the Word of God should be changing? What is to be revealed with regard to the way we should be living that isn’t known? The word is immutable. Rev 22:18-19

    We are born to change, only insofar as we are to conform to the will of Christ. If we then become so graced, we too become eternal. We too become immutable.

    October 7, 2011
    • That’s all fine and good, but I wasn’t aware that we were even talking about anything like the existence of “moral constants.” The post was a reflection upon how the reality of death ought to influence the way in which we live. I really had no idea how to interpret your comment about “Mr. Jobs’ affection for constant change,” and I certainly had no clue that you were talking about his views of morality.

      If the identity of “inner voice” that Mr. Job subscribes to is not the voice of Christ within me or my best effort at discerning the voice of Christ within, then how can it be anything other than a belief that is antiethical to the call of our Lord. How, in the end,if it is not of God can I deduce it as anything other than evil? What ‘third rail” do you prepose as demonstrably Christian in identity, that is neither good or evil? If it is not of the principality of God of what principality is it?

      I’m having a hard time understanding why you think that I am proposing a “third rail” (whatever that might be). I am no defender of of Mr. Jobs’ suggestion that our inner voice ought to be our guiding light. I think I was quite clear about that in the post. Are you disagreeing with me because you think that I did not portray this view negatively or “evilly” enough? I don’t quite understand what you’re pushing back on here.

      How would you prepose, the Word of God should be changing? What is to be revealed with regard to the way we should be living that isn’t known? The word is immutable. Rev 22:18-19.

      I did not propose that the Word of God should be changing. I have no idea how you would get this idea from the post or any of my subsequent comments.

      October 7, 2011
  5. I suspect we are talking past one another…if there is such a thing as a moral constant and I would argue that there is, then I am beholden to dogma , beholden to the predetermined understandings of those who came before me. If I do not process and apply what is already understood and known, I am living a life antiethical to the Christian message. I am a postmodernist. You asserted that “changelessness is a bizarre criterion” (so I simply proposed that there is an unchanging moral constant) forgive my bluntness but yes, yes , yes my good man, changelessness, the perpetual loving of God and neighbor specifically, is the constant predetermined and understood call. There is only the appearance of change insofar as context and culture are different but the call and the response to the call are always, always the same…forgive my bluntness but I am quite tired as I write this… Fuck business, fuck my inner voice, fuck any belief that asserts that what is true and what is worthy stands only temporally , relative to it’s own present, soon to be modified and changed but what is “heard” by each individual voice in the future. (This is what I heard in the quote you romanticize about)… that is nothing but lies…God has spoken. The truth is known. The challenge is not in determining what truth is but rather how to discipline our lives so as to live out truth…just because Job’s generally affirms that the reality of death ought to inform the way we live doesn’t mean that the specific conclusions he draws with regards to the way we should live, aren’t completely full of shit.

    It follows then, at least according to my dubious logic, if Job is to be admired here then we must create a catagory of Christian thought that is at the same time is antiethical to Chriatian values but still simultaneously reflective of truth..the “third rail” refers to a subject that is so charged with death inducing electricity, it is better off avoided.

    I share your dread regarding death. Like yourself and Ken if I have any hope at all, it is only in the mercy of God. As we say in Catholic culture not for my/our sake, but for the sake of the sorrowful passion.

    October 8, 2011
    • Yes, it certainly seems that we are talking past each other.

      I don’t know how much more clearly I can state these things, but I have never disputed that there is such a thing as a moral constant, nor did I or do I affirm Steve Jobs’ view that the spectre of death ought to motivate us to listen to our inner voices more diligently. I truly don’t understand how you think I am romanticizing his view. The post was a critique of this view! Just because I don’t use colourful language full of condemnation, just because I try to affirm what can be affirmed before criticizing what is not, does not mean that I am somehow in agreement with it!

      Incidentally, I came across this interesting article today that casts some doubt on just how “decent” Steve Jobs actually was. Seems that views about what death ought to teach us aren’t the only thing worth questioning about this man.

      October 8, 2011
  6. Reading this, I thought of the death of institutional churches too, opening the field for new forms of Christian community and worship. It is happening even now.

    I grew weary this week of hearing how Steve Jobs changed the world. He didn’t. He helped pioneer new technologies, but that isn’t the same as changing the world. I love reading on my Kindle, and I see how its design was inspired by the sleek, elegant style Apple put forth in its own products. But an electronic thing doesn’t change your life, or the world in a fundamental way.

    His comments about death make sense from a materialist, naturalist worldview, but they don’t really fit as well with Christian theism.

    October 8, 2011
    • Interesting connection, Chris. I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but of course you’re right. Old forms die away to make way for (hopefully) new and better ones.

      It’s interesting how death so often is the means by which new forms of life comes emerges—something good out of something bad—yet for human beings, the existential dread remains. We appreciate death only because of its role in leading to more or better life. I suppose I was interpreting Jobs (perhaps too charitably) in this context.

      October 8, 2011
  7. jschmidty #

    Having been removed from halls of rich academia and thrust into my somewhat pragmatic job I wonder if Steve Jobs quote had a hint of sarcasm or laughter that can’t be picked up in print. After all he was speaking this message AND to university graduates probably conspiring their evening party. You’ve got to be blunt and you’ve got to be somewhat funny and controversial all at the same time. I wonder if the crowd chuckled or gasped just a bit when he said that, thus giving the audience a little more light hearted take on it at the time. Death does bring new life, especially in a natural world context (e.g. fire), and for young graduates I think Steve did a great job at perking their ears to his message. I doubt he intended that very comment to be so analyzed.

    I wish the comments would’ve focused more on this comment by Ryan “To put it bluntly, our inner voices aren’t always worth listening to.” Listening to our inner voices, intuition, passion – whatever you want to call it interests me a lot. If you’re like me, you graduated high school with a deep passion to do something different/change the world/etc. – went to university, nurtured that passion – graduated – had trouble finding a ‘meaningful job’ so found a decent job and am now told to be thankful that I’m providing for my family (short version). Yes, I am deeply thankful for the work I’ve been given. I can extract some meaning from it at times, but I have so many other passions/inner voices/etc that aren’t nurtured – where do they come from? Are they selfish? God-given to be lived out during off-hours or later in life? Simple interests or likes? Do they even matter to God, since our God-given call is at its base quite simple – love God and love your neighbour?

    October 10, 2011
    • I think you’re right about Jobs’ comment—the scrutiny it has been receiving is undoubtedly largely due to his passing and all of the heightened reflection that tends to accompany death. It’s a view that does enjoy considerable cultural traction, though, and for me, death is as good an opportunity as any to see if it’s a position that really is tenable.

      Re: listening to our inner voices, I think you raise a very interesting point. How do we know which voices are worth listening to? Which ones are good and life-giving? Which ones are part of how and why God made us? Life has a way of squelching the good, hopeful, and transformative voices, it’s true… Funny, how it doesn’t seem to do the same for the not-so-good voices. Those are the voices we have to work to keep down.

      I think that in general, the criteria you identify—love of God and neighbour—is as good a barometer as any in evaluating the competing voices in our lives. If I’m a hypothetical graduate in Steve Jobs’ audience in 2005, and hearing an inner voice tell me to go make as much money as possible in order to be able to enjoy what I want, when I want it, and retire early, perhaps this voice could use some scrutinizing. It’s an easy example, I know, but I guess this is the kind of thing I was getting at in the post. The voices in our heads can be profoundly selfish and spiritually/psychologically/emotionally/relationally destructive. Are these the voices Jobs was urging us to follow?

      (Come to think of it, based on a number of articles I’ve come across since his passing, it seems like they may have been….)

      October 11, 2011

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