On Loss and Life
This morning I am grimly staring in the mirror at a large red scab that is rapidly moving toward full bloom almost directly in the middle of my forehead. An uncomfortable reminder, this, of the previous evening’s activities when, instead of making contact with the soccer ball as I had intended, I rather abruptly introduced my forehead to an opponent’s skull. This ugly scab seems somehow uglier as I reflect upon the game itself. Up 2-1 in the second half, then conceding three goals in about 10 minutes to lose 4-2—two of said goals almost entirely due to giveaways by the guy with the blotchy red forehead.
Of course, most normal people would quickly and cheerfully shrug off a few mistakes in a rec league soccer game and simply appreciate the opportunity to be outdoors and have some fun. But I am not most people. Or normal, I suspect. I seem to possess a unique ability to turn an astonishing array of utterly ordinary everyday events into opportunities for tortured existential reflection. I also have a propensity to leave no opportunities for self-flagellation unexplored. Even as a kid, I would go over my hockey games endlessly in my mind long after the game was done, inwardly praising myself for the big goal or the big hit or, more frequently, savagely berating myself for my many perceived errors. What can I say? Old habits die hard.
So why so grim this morning? Is it because I am a perfectionist and I hate doing anything poorly? Because I am ridiculously competitive and hate to lose? Because my head is still ringing from last night’s misadventures? Yes, probably all of these and more. But on a deeper level (there’s always a deeper level, right :)?), I think it has more to do with the fact that nights like last night remind me of the slow, inexorable march of time and of the loss that this entails. I’m not as fast or talented as I once was. The knees and the ankles and hamstrings and calves seem somehow to take a bit longer to recover now. Balls that I would once get to quite easily, I am now arriving at half a second too late. Twenty year olds are blowing past me with alarming regularity. Such are the travails of the declining beer league sports warrior.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously said that to live is to suffer. Job put it a bit more lyrically: “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:7). Those eminent poets The Foo Fighters put it rather more starkly: “It’s a shame we have to die, my dear. No one’s getting out of here alive.” We know all of this rationally, of course, but we kind of bury these things in the deep, dark corners of our minds where we won’t have to look at or think about them very often. And there they stay, until some trivial (or not so trivial event) brings them crashing back to the front of our consciousness.
To live is to suffer, yes. And part of this is because to live is to lose. The older we get, the more we see that things are always being taken away from us. Lost physical and mental abilities, lost health, lost opportunities, lost relationships. We watch loved ones struggle with chronic pain, we see people suffer and die, we see hopes and dreams go unmet, we see potential go unrealized, and we know that there is no going back. Time moves in one direction and we along with it. Everything is temporary, everything is falling away. Even the good things. Especially the good things.
In Philippians 1:21, the apostle Paul confidently declares: “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” The words are so familiar… do we really believe them? Do I? Or are our horizons so constricted in the postmodern wilderness—even in the church—that these words do little more than poetically express a wistful longing for a vaguely hopeful future? Do we buy into the myths of the marketers that flog their products by selling us an idealized life, imploring us to make sure that we have lived enough, experienced enough, done enough to justify the short time that we have? Or do we truly believe, right down into our bones, that this life is not and will never be big enough to satisfy the human hunger for eternity, for permanence, for life?
To live is Christ. To die is gain. To truly live is to embrace and follow the one who did not treat his life as something to cling to but willingly laid it down for his friends and his enemies. To truly live is to embrace life as a gift and to hold it lightly, rather than desperately grasping and clinging to it as it passes us by. To truly live is to be confident and expectant that, whatever our losses and however painful the experience of them might be, the God who created us with an insatiable appetite for life can be trusted with our past, present, and future. And that nothing good is ever finally lost in God’s economy.
Ryan, believe it or not about an hour before reading this blog entry I was musing about aging and death. (My father died about two years ago, so Father’s Day likely triggered these thoughts).
As I thought about these rather dark things, I was reminded of something I read somewhere about the rules the Church had about deciding who could be a Saint. Apparently, you had to have a “good death” as in a peaceful death. For some reason a guy they were considering canonizing was dug up. They discovered the corpse had a distorted, gasping expression rather than peaceful. So they decided he hadn’t died well and he lost out on being made a saint (sucks to be him)
Your comments about endless navel gazing, reflection and tendancy towards perfectionism resonated with me. as i mused about aging, death and the guy who lost out on sainthood, I thought to myself: So since you are a perfectionist here is yet another task, Make sure you have a “good death” and make sure you die with a peaceful expression on your face. I decided that this was obsessive thinking and a recipe for an endless task list.
Rather i want to lean into the New Creation I try to believe in, rely on grace and do some good along the way.
Wear you red blotchy scab with pride brother!
Nice. Me, too.
If having the right expression on our face when we die is the criterion for sainthood… well, God help us all. I have sat at the bedside of dear old people who have lived lives of committed discipleship and are anxious and frightened when death comes calling. I don’t think any less of their faith because of this. Far from it, actually. I think God would rather we face death, like everything else in life, with complete honesty and with all the faith we can muster in the God who can shepherd us to the other side.
(I don’t think God would be fooled by my making sure I had a serenity smile plastered on my face at death, anyway. He knows me too well for that :).)
“Your comments about endless navel gazing, reflection and tendancy towards perfectionism resonated with me. ”
Im a little surprised that you guys are so quick to comdem/discard these practices of the ancient christian ‘Desert Fathers’ without having first tried them for a time.
I’m not quite sure what you’re referring to here, Mike. I don’t recall condemning any ancient practices of the Desert Fathers here.