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.