Last week I was informed of a tragic death in my family. My cousin leaves behind him a wife, two daughters, and a son. For the family left behind this will be a Lenten season of terrible suffering. His death has struck me hard. It has reminded me of how fragile life is, and has since stirred within me a reflection on how one is capable of moving forward as a Christian disciple after having encountered the tragedy of an untimely death.
Funny: while meditating on all of this, the lyrics of an old song (from my "pre-reversion" years) popped into my head. The song—"Life" by Flipper—is embedded below (feel free to skip).
Few readers will probably want to listen to the whole thing given how harsh on the ears it is. The lyrics are pretty straight-forward: I, too, have sung death's praises / But I'm not going to sing that song anymore / Yes, I've found out what living is all about / It's life! Life! / Life is the only thing worth living for / Yes, life! Life! / Life is the only thing worth... / Life! Life! / (I know it has it's ups and downs).
Now, keep in mind, these guys were not Christians by any measure, but for a punk song it is astonishingly positive and entirely sincere. Yet there is a grave weakness in the song which was probably lost on most listeners during the time of Flipper's career: while life is valuable in and of itself, Will Shatter (the vocalist) sings a view of life's value that is subjective and self-referential. In other words, life's value is based in nothing beyond one's self. "You live so you can keep living... then you die... but until then, live!" Again, it's all very positive sounding, but this positivity is limited to something akin to "living the good life" as the Stoics conceived of it: heroic persistence even in the face of suffering. Shatter's lyrics want to be hopeful, and I'm sure that many listeners have said to themselves in the moment, "Yeah, life is pretty good." I wonder though how many actually found that this hope was sustained within them beyond the exhilarating moment of the song.
What's missing here? What's the alternative to grounding the value of human life only in the life itself? Why should I be hopeful about just living more until I inevitably die? In fact, we find the answer to this question in a papal document I have been reading for my moral theology class: Spe Salvi, "On Christian Hope," the second Encyclical of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
In the Encyclical, Benedict asks an uncomfortable—but very relevant—question while he ponders the text of the Rite of Baptism:
"The parents expect more for the one to be baptized: they expect that faith... will give life to their child—eternal life... But then the question arises: do we really want this—to live eternally?
"Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living forever—endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable.
"Obviously there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence... 'Eternal', in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; 'life' makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it."
Will Shatter was wrong: life really cannot be "the only thing worth living for." Any hope for continued worldly life within us is met with a counter-hope, a desire that our lives will end so that our suffering will cease.
The unfortunate consequence of this stance is that when suffering becomes seemingly unbearable a person is vulnerable to the temptation to actively give up life altogether. There is nothing to which one can hold on in hope. This isn't just theoretical: today we see apparently healthy people paying others to euthanize them, and even children are being given the option of euthanasia. Finally, there are some who propose that it is better never to exist at all, a (growing?) philosophical stance that has been dubbed "anti-natalism."
Obviously, then, we must make a choice between hope founded upon ourselves, leading to our destruction, or hope founded upon something else, leading to... Well, let's go back to Benedict:
"In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven... This unknown 'thing' is the true 'hope' which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts... directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity. The term 'eternal life' is intended to give a name to this known 'unknown'...
"[A]nyone who does not know God, even though he may entertain all kinds of hopes, is ultimately without hope, without the great hope that sustains the whole of life (cf. Eph 2:12). Man' s great, true hope which holds firm in spite of all disappointments can only be God—God who has loved us and who continues to love us 'to the end,' until all 'is accomplished' (cf. Jn 13:1 and 19:30).
"Whoever is moved by love begins to perceive what 'life' really is. He begins to perceive the meaning of the word of hope that we encountered in the Baptismal Rite: from faith I await 'eternal life'—the true life which, whole and unthreatened, in all its fullness, is simply life. Jesus, who said that he had come so that we might have life and have it in its fullness, in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10), has also explained to us what 'life' means: 'this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent' (Jn 17:3). Life... in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we 'live'."
There you have it: for the Christian, life is not worth living in itself except as it corresponds to growing in relationship with Jesus Christ. The anticipation of and desire for this relationship, as motivated as it is by one's seemingly self-serving desire for "eternal life," is a theological virtue infused into us by God in prayer: the virtue of hope.
Another "thought snippet" entered into my mind over the past days as I meditated on my cousin's death: "Life is Worth Living." Unlike the Flipper verse, this is a saying we can place full confidence in, for it was the title of a television show filmed by Archbishop Fulton Sheen, whose cause for canonization is in process.
My grandmother watched Archbishop Sheen's program when it was still on. She suffered terribly in her later years from cancer, which gradually took away her ability to live independently. But she would have never chosen to end her life: she was and is still deeply loved by her family, and I remember her being so loving and joyful when I would visit her as a child. My family made sure that she was able to stay in her own home until the day she died, and they would always visit her regularly. I look at this as the gift of love—being open to life—being paid back to her in later years, and I'm grateful to my family for having done this. Grandma's raising of a family and that family's later care for her are examples of hope as lived out in this world.
Whatever happened to Will Shatter? Unfortunately, he died of a heroin overdose only some five years after "Life" was recorded, leaving behind him a wife and daughter. Shatter had apparently cleaned himself up, but then slipped for a final time. Those who knew him were surprised by his death. I don't tell you this, dear reader, for the sake of Schadenfreude but that you may understand the absolute necessity of committing your life to Christ. Not everybody dies of an overdose, obviously; but we're all looking for happiness—truth, goodness, and beauty... "eternal life"—and only God can give us the right orientation that will lead us forward to that for which we hope. My cousin had that right orientation: he is a Catholic Christian, and so are those who survive him. They live in hope.
God bless you all during this holy season of Lent. Please pray for the sure repose of the soul of my cousin, and that the family that survives him may be infused with greater levels of hope. Please also pray for poor Will Shatter: there is always hope, even for the souls who seem the most lost.