The most important fact of life is death. Yet, we spend our whole lives busily running away from that fact to create an ever-more complex world of endless trivial tasks and diversions. But the ultimate reality is that our time here is so limited and ever closer to the end.
Before the 20th century, when so many children died and most folks didn’t see 50, death was an almost constant presence. Not distracted by modern media, folks could not so easily ignore death’s rapid approach. In fact, cemeteries were social gathering places for frequent family visits to tend relatives’ graves, hold picnics, and even stage concerts.
Pre-secular America was also a devoutly Judeo-Christian land stressing the urgency of making peace with God before it was too late. And there’s nothing like the fear of hell to provide focus.
But today’s America is a secular landscape with endlessly multiplying distractions to divert attention from our final appointment. Whereas sex was the most taboo topic in polite company before the 1960’s sexual revolution, now death has that distinction. My 10th grade English teacher, William Shoemaker, pointed this out in 1978. Today people say, “If something happens to me,” as if death could only be a shocking accident.
In my youth, death was for the old. I knew it could happen to anyone but never emotionally understood death as a fact, at least not for the young. I felt invulnerable and drove accordingly. So my teens and 20s had little urgency, since I had many decades to do whatever.
Then came the deaths of two childhood classmates in their late 20s. One was my first-grade sweetheart. Though I hadn’t seen her in years, and knew she had cancer, her death impacted me to my core. Only then did I emotionally realize that tragedy could just as easily take any of us.
Visiting her grave and seeing that name chiseled on stone reinforced that she was now part of history. A wave of memories drowned any notion that this life is anything but fragile and brief.
So I resolved to never again delay doing this or seizing that opportunity. Every death since then has felt much more real. Each brands me with the determination to lose no time fulfilling whatever potential God has given me and exploiting every possible vehicle for growth, helping others, learning, experiencing, and just making fun times to create swell memories.
Consequently, I’ve done light-years more in my 30s, 40s and 49-plus-interest years than I ever did in my teens and 20s. I used to think, oh, I can go to London or Beijing anytime. They’re not going anywhere. But since age 28, I’ve known Douglas will be going somewhere — to the grave. So I’ve now been to London and Beijing multiple times and have traveled to many times more places in middle age than I ever did when young.
Being quite shy, I used to hesitate accepting public speaking invitations. No more. I am grateful to be asked and resolve to give folks a speech they will never forget. If asked to teach a new course, I embrace the risk of possible failure (and the fact of a lot more work). How can I blow the chance to help enlighten students and myself about big public matters? I only grow when I’m challenged, try hard and, yes, make mistakes.
In his hilarious 1982 movie, “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” Woody Allen utters my favorite line from any film: “That’s the saddest thing in life, a missed opportunity.” Indeed, all my regrets are over missed chances.
Not telling a dear aunt on her deathbed that I loved her because it might be awkward. Not asking out more gals in school for fear of getting my ego hurt by possible rejection — and there was always homework. As a gal who later confirmed she had a crush on me, but I was too shy to pursue her, declared: “You should have made some F’s and had more fun.”
She was so right. Our time is so short and a lost opportunity is gone forever. Indeed, I’ve never regretted going to a concert, but I’ve sure regretted not going to see and hear all the exciting bands and performers who’ve long since broken up or died.
I still visit graveyards, partly to reinforce the urgency of life since, way more than the past, cemeteries are our future. In William Faulkner’s novel, “As I Lay Dying,” a character says, “My father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.” So I try to never put off doing anything worthy for a single day.
I swear to do all I can to not lament on my deathbed what Samuel Johnson understood: “That we must all die, we always knew; I wish I had remembered it sooner.” Each day offers a fresh bounty of chances to do good, be a friend, create and savor the unique joy of just being alive.
Dennis Prager says gratitude is the secret to happiness. Gratitude for this brief life — though full of pain, struggle, tragedy and sadness — may be a key to engaging it fully so we won’t dread death so much when we’re old, or at any age.
Dr. Douglas Young is a professor of political science and history at the University of North Georgia-Gainesville campus.