Pete Enns reposted an article that I really liked. I started to write him an email about it, but it began to go longish, and I realized it earned “meditation” status, especially since I didn’t do one for this last Sunday. A bit of warning – Pete’s article is about the cycles of generations passing away, so the mood it will leave you in is, best case scenario, pensive. This post you’re reading will probably be similar.
I am in my early forties, and the kinds of things Pete talks about are things I have started to try and come to grips with. I thought my thirties were my official separation from youth, but for some reason, my mortality didn’t really hit me, nor did the idea of the passing away of everything that was a frame of reference to me at one point. But it does, now, and I wish I could say I always handled it with the gentle acceptance Pete portrays in his post. Sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t. I tend to skew more toward the “rage, rage against the dying of the light” way of dealing with it, but I think that’ll change with time. Lord, I truly hope so (that is a prayer).
I moved around a lot when I was a kid, so I don’t have a single childhood home per se. There is one that I lived in for most of elementary school, and that’s the one I think of when I think of childhood homes. I thought about my room. I thought about how the overhang of the second floor and the bushes lining the front made for a sort of tunnel I used to duck into and play behind when I was a kid. I thought of watching TV and playing in a family room that seemed, to me, to be truly massive. I thought of my own room, reading a sci-fi book (yes, I have been a nerd for a really long time) and munching on a Dole pineapple juice bar.
There is another family in that house, now. They have their own furniture and decorations. Other children are growing up in that house. Whole new lives and stories are being spun out in those walls that held my own vitality and stories as I grew up, and when that family is gone, a new one will move in and create a new world there of their own.
In the house we lived in when I was in high school, someone else will be thinking their relationship with some girl is the most important thing anyone could possibly be thinking about. Someone else will be dealing with their insecurities, working through their spiritualities, and heading out to do stupid things with their friends. Someone else will be mowing that lawn in the summer, resentful of the time it takes away from them to do absolutely nothing at all, because all they have is time. And when those people are gone, someone new will live out new dramas where they are the center of the world and life is all about what comes next.
I wonder if the people who live in those houses would let me in if I came by and introduced myself. I wonder if I would cry, seeing those spaces through my eyes now and what they’ve become for someone else, or how different the reality seems to me at my age and my height. My eyes certainly aren’t what they used to be when I was ten, either.
Other people are on the Park Hill debate team. They have another captain, and whoever was captain after me is long gone and replaced by another and another. Those bleachers are filled with different people watching Homecoming rallies or basketball games, enjoying those moments when everyone – no matter what your clique – is friends as you join against a common enemy. Other parents have come to watch their kids on the auditorium stage. In twenty years, it’ll be yet another set.
Our current culture in the modern West has done a good job isolating us from death. The average lifespan is no longer forty. People do not have children expecting that only one or two will survive. You don’t have to go back very far to find a time when a relative who passed on did so in the family’s house, and someone sat up with the body for a night, and they were buried in a small cemetery at their home or the village church. Everyone in all ages was intimately acquainted with death as a part of the cycle of life. It wasn’t strange or jarring.
But now you live twice as long as your ancestors. You die in a hospital full of other people who are also fighting for life. Your body is sent to a funeral home. Death is something we hide away and try to forget about, like some deeply unpleasant secret shame every family shares. While this may serve to keep our lives a little bit sunnier as we do not think regularly about death, it makes the thing itself seem more like a fundamental disjunction in reality instead of just what naturally happens. It is a shock, and it is something to dread, avoid, fight, or even keep from talking about in any kind of concrete way.
Fifty years ago, my grandfather was coming to terms with the fact that he would die, someday. A hundred years ago, his father was, too. Somewhere centuries down the line, one of my ancestors thought about his life, his family, everything he had done, and contemplated that it would end. All those people are gone, now, and someday so shall I. Someday, my sons will enter their forties if the Lord wills and begin to think about these things, and their children. One day, my grandchild will think about their grandfather passing away. And his grandchild will think about his grandfather passing away.
To me, these are sad thoughts. I want to cry even typing them out. And I’m all right with that. The instinct is to jump in with some comforting thoughts like the resurrection or what have you, but I don’t think I want to paste over this with doctrine. This is the window to reality that Ecclesiastes gives us, and in some form or fashion, that message is from God.
This is the way things are and will be, and only a fool does not come to terms with it.
But I will allow myself a little bit of doctrine to seep in, I suppose. That’s who I am. My identity does not belong to me and never did. My who-I-am-ness is something that is a gift. I did not create myself or construct my consciousness. It was given to me for meaningful use. The God who gave it to me will have it back, one day, and it is up to Him to superintend that. It is into His hands that I commit my spirit, and no other. And while I do not know exactly what He’s going to do with it, or how, or when – I trust Him with it, and perhaps that is the seed of making peace with death before I die.