The Sting of Death
Someone I know lost a long battle with cancer today. I grew up with this person. We played hockey together, went to school together. He had a child, had a career, had friends and family, had hopes and dreams and plans for the future. And then… gone.
The news came through via a few lines on a little screen, opened casually between activities on a lazy Sunday afternoon. How is that possible? How can the same sound on a phone that signifies an updated sports score or an mind-numbingly banal status update also bring news of the end of a precious human life? How can the same medium that conveys the trivial minutiae of our blogged and Facebooked and tweeted lives also bring these little droppings of dread encoded in zeroes and ones, reminders that despite the many and varied ways that we keep ourselves distracted and entertained and numb, death is always in the air?
Today was a strange day. I was restless, sullen, unable to focus or concentrate for a good part of it, and I wasn’t quite sure why. I was easily annoyed, for example, by the ubiquity of the “smart” phone as I sat in a restaurant this afternoon—everywhere I looked, people staring at their phones instead of at the person across the table from them, straining for that new high score in that stupid game they just downloaded instead of talking to the flesh-and-blood child in front of them, gazing absent mindedly at the game on the screen instead of engaging with the glorious man or woman beside them. It made me angry—today, more than usual. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m often as guilty as those that so irritated me today. Or, maybe because death was in the air, waiting to make its usual thoroughly unwelcome appearance. Maybe we can sense death coming, like a change in the weather. Maybe it sends advance warnings through the air and we feel it in our bones, in our stomachs, in our synapses.
And then, I get home, and I, too, am staring at a screen. Staring in disbelief at a screen that displays words like, “lost his battle,” “struggle with cancer,” “declining strength” and “gone.” Vicious words, painful words, heartbreaking, heart-in-your-throat words. Words that make me feel sad and angry and helpless and confused, even though I know they are words that others are facing much more acutely than me today. Even though I know that they are words that people must face every day. Other people… Far away people… Not-me people… People-I-don’t-know people.
In 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul seems to almost mock death. Borrowing the words of a Greek poet, he sneers, “Where O death is thy victory? Where O death is thy sting?” I wish I could muster this kind of confident derision when it comes to death, but whenever I come across it, it sure seems to have plenty of sting. It stings like hell, actually—especially when I think of those who will be affected most directly by this death. And as for victory? Well, the game isn’t over yet, and this is what keeps us hoping. Keeps us believing. Keeps us anticipating a glorious comeback where life roars back to win the game, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
How we need this hope, this belief, this anticipation.