Three years ago today, on my 32nd birthday, I wrote this reflection and posted it on our community's blog. It is a reflection that has never left me and one which I come back to every birthday. Today I turned 35, today, as is the case everyday, I must make a choice. here is that reflection:
Lately I have been thinking a lot about life and death. Today being my 32nd birthday seems like an ideal time to sit and write some of these thoughts down. My birthday didn't really prompt any of these ideas in my mind but it has stirred up, or allowed space for the stirring of all the questions that have been swimming around my head recently.
Neither birth nor death are often the result of one's choice and volition. Life is hurled upon us at birth as either a gift or a burden, though we almost always meet birth with joy and celebration. It is very rare to find any expression of sentiments akin to those words penned by the author of Ecclesiastes, "The day of death is better than the day of birth." Death is mostly feared, avoided and mourned in contrast with the smiles that surround the beginning of life. We are dealt life and then cling to it desperately in our avoidance of death. While death, unlike birth, does stand before us as an option to be freely chosen. Very few, however, embrace death as an act of the will. We either despise or praise those who do. The suicide, we despise and the martyr we honor. Both make the decision to cast their life off though, as G. K. Chesterton pointed out, the suicide insults everything in existence as not worth living for. The martyr on the other hand so values one thing that it is worth all. It is for this reason that he places these two categories of the willfully dead as opposites. I agree with Chesterton's assessment and still think that a wise man would not take suicide off the table as a very real option. One, because it always is actually an option but also because of the value of choosing.
It has been said by the philosopher Albert Camus that the only serious philosophical question is whether or not to commit suicide. Shakespeare's Hamlet opens with the question "To be or not to be?" While this may seem at first to be a dark and disturbing question, it presents a very real and human dilemma. I wonder if our interpretation or uneasiness about such questions can stand as a correction to us about the deeper issues of our lives. We did not choose to be born. Thirty two years ago I was born a free man, though I was not free to choose life yet. It is in the 32 years that I have lived that I reflect on now and wonder why I have chosen to stay alive. Have I? Have you? It seems to me that it is only by facing the very real option of death that it is possible to actually choose life. I remember Ivan in The Brothers Karamozov saying that he has decided to live until thirty and then "dash my cup to the ground." What is one to make of such comments? I am forced by these comments and questions to acknowledge that not dashing ones cup to the ground is also a choice. It is a choice that takes courage if one is to actually live rather than merely avoiding death as so many unconsciously do. I am excited by the prospect of a real choice about existence. To be or not to be really is the question. It seems to me that one who daily faces these questions in a deep and real way might be the most sober and alive, for each day they live they have made a conscious decision for life! I am reminded of the opening monologue in No Country For Old Men which ended, and so began the movie, with the statement that a man would have to decide and say "OK, I'll be part of this world." It is the question itself that forces one to decide that the flower is worth living to smell. Chesterton criticizes the suicide for not valuing anything in this world enough to choose life and I might also extend that criticism to those who do not choose life, but continue to exist.
I am intrigued by our culture's love for the living dead and the zombie apocalypse. It may not be as fantastic and absurd as we think of it, for many among us are dead men walking. We, like zombies, roam from scene to scene driven by unquenchable desire. We hunger and consume without regard for the cost and compulsive addiction to escaping death or pain or any reminder of that great fate/decision that hangs over our heads. Though we can relate to the zombies we also relate to the uninfected fighting to stay alive. We, like those survivors, are not a lost cause without a hope for recovery, as are the undead. We still have a choice to make. In the zombie movies we sometimes see people choose death and commit suicide when faced with the world in front of them. It is in the context of such vignettes that we most sympathize and understand the suicide. Isn't Chesterton's criticism still relevant? Shouldn't we still condemn this decision? Why are we more understanding of these fictional suicides? Is it because the world that they are facing is dangerous, scary, filled with pain and loss or is it because death seemed so imminent anyway? Isn't that always true? Isn't real life dangerous, scary, filled with pain and loss? Isn't death always the only thing in our future that we can count on? These things are a central part of life, as are joy, love and forgiveness. We get it all whether we choose life or just keep on being alive. It is in the honest look at life that acknowledges pain, suffering and death along with play, family, and hope that one can fully choose it. If we understand the suicide in the middle of a zombie apocalypse then we should be able to similarly understand the suicide of a friend that wakes up, looks at our world, sees the droves of zombies, looses hope and dashes their cup to the ground. If we are to choose life it seems that our deepest reasons should transcend the conditions in which we find ourselves. We still might criticize the suicide with Chesterton, whether it is our friend or the character within the apocalypse and we might praise the hero that lays his life down for another. The man who chooses life may 'drink death like wine' and the man that only avoids death doesn't actually ever live. The choice is ours.
Rather than just being living organisms that will naturally do anything it takes to survive we must decide what life is worth and how we shall spend it. So today, on my birthday, I am choosing life. I am choosing the pains, struggles, joys and love once again. I am deciding that the Kingdom of God and our prayer for it to come to earth is worth my life, dead or alive. Today it seems best to choose life but at my core the real choice is Jesus and I will dash my cup to the ground with joy the second that's what choosing Jesus will mean for me.