Things That Count
My grandmother died today. For you, the reader, it will have been days, weeks, months, perhaps even years since she died, but for me, it was today. I am still sorting it out-I had no intention of writing this piece about her, but somehow, there is nothing else right now that seems worth writing about. She was alive when I woke up this morning, and now she is not. Life goes on, oddly enough, even though it seems like it shouldn't. I got the call from my dad just hours ago, and right after I had to bike to class. Strange, really-to think about something as obscure as constitutional law right after one's grandmother dies. The world seemed different somehow as I biked to class-more distant, fragile, and somehow unreal-as if one blew too hard, it might all come crashing down like a house of cards or a sandcastle. I am sitting, now, at my computer at my desk, in my room, alone. I am quite sure that I am fine-she was, after all, an old woman, and towards the end we all hoped that she would go something like this. Quietly, without too much suffering, in her sleep. But even so. but even so. I am still sorting it out.
I was going to write this article about the purpose of education; indeed, more broadly, about the meaning of life. As if I know the answer to such questions. It is something that has been on my mind lately—my roommate, for example, has been going through the recruiting process for the past few weeks. He just got a wonderful job, and I’m very happy for him. But it was nerve-wracking for him; I could tell. He was so nervous, he made me nervous, too. And I got to thinking about what I was going to do after I graduate—law school? Seminary? Consulting? Graduate school? The possibilities swirled around in my mind, and before long, became something of an obsession. If seminary, which seminary? Lutheran? Episcopalian? None of the above? Or if law school, which law school? Am I smart enough to get into Harvard or Yale? If not, where will I go? Where will I go afterwards? Do I really want to work 15-hour days in a big corporate firm? What, where, when, WHY? That, finally, was the question that stuck most in my mind. If I’m running around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to get into the best law school or the best seminary, why am I doing it? What really do I want? Why, why, why, why, why???
Death has a way of concentrating the mind. Most college students, I imagine, don’t often think about death—I certainly don’t. Living in the Quad as I do, the shuttle takes me each day to the Yard, and drops me off right smack in front of an old cemetery—God’s Acre, I believe it is called. But I rarely look at it. Really look at it, I mean. Rows upon rows of gravestones, most of them inscribed with gruesome little winged death’s heads—I don’t really see that when I get off the shuttle bus. “Even in the midst of life, we are in death,” the old Puritan preachers used to say. That’s not really true, I think. In the midst of life, we do everything we can to forget about death. We think about the problem set due tomorrow, and the cute girl in section, and so on, and so forth. In the midst of life, we tell ourselves, we are in life, and death is something far, far away…
Until it actually hits home. Death, I think, is something so strange, so different, so other, that we can’t handle it on a day-to-day basis. But when it comes, it changes us for a bit, and makes us see things differently, if only for a little while. It’s a lot like the mini-existential crisis brought on by my roommate’s job search—it makes us ask the why questions, only more so. Why do I want to be a lawyer, or a writer, or a pastor? More than that, why do I want to be anything at all? What should I spend my life at? I won’t have it forever—someday, even if I don’t like to think about it, I too will die. And so will my parents, my family, and my friends. Does that sound morbid? I suppose it is—but unfortunately no less true. Most of us don’t ask these questions out loud; they seem silly, in a way; too personal, and too subjective. But I think, in the end, they are the only questions that matter at all. What am I to do with my life? Who am I to spend it with? It’s so fragile… like a house of cards, or a sandcastle. How will I live? Why?
G. K. Chesterton said somewhere that God gave us death so that we might appreciate life. I am not sure if that is true, but there may be something to it. Adam and Eve, so the story goes, were given everything they ever could have wanted—a blissful Eden in which to live out their days, in perfect happiness and perfect peace. But still, they were not satisfied. “Ye shall be as gods,” the serpent told them, if only they would eat from the forbidden tree. And so, they took, and they ate. And God came and found them in the garden, and told them then that they would one day die—that, somehow, there would come an end to things. Adam would not forever live with Eve, nor Eve with Adam—someday, they would die. I wonder what Adam and Eve thought of that—I wonder if they even had any idea what to think. How can someone who has not known death understand it? But even as I write, I know that this is a silly question. I do not understand death; I don’t suppose that I ever will. All I know is that there will come an end to things—that, so to speak, I will not forever dwell in the Garden. I suppose Adam and Eve grasped that somehow too, when God told them that they were going to die. And I imagine that the fruit on the trees, and the grass on the hills, and the flowers on the meadows, looked all the more beautiful because they knew that they would not always have them. Adam and Eve had it all, and still were not satisfied—maybe God really did give them death so that they could appreciate life.
Life really is a funny thing, when you think about it. It doesn’t really answer the why questions for you—you’re born one day, even though no one asked you about it; you start spitting up and crying and eating mashed peas; you go to kindergarten and try to avoid the school bully; you go to middle school, and as if that wasn’t confusing enough, you get shipped off to high school; then you go to college, and wham!—there you are, 21 years old, and not too much more sure about things than you were during your mashed-pea days. At least then, you knew for a fact that you didn’t like mashed peas. The why questions are still out there, waiting, and they don’t get a bit easier as you go along.
I don’t think I can answer the why questions for you; not in a tidy little magazine like this one, published thrice yearly and door-dropped for your convenience. I don’t think truth works like that; I don’t think you can wrap it up tight with paper and string and leave it on someone’s doorstep. But I can tell you to please, please—start asking the why questions for yourself. Sometimes I worry that we forget to ask the why questions—we’re too busy running around, making sure that we get good grades, have the right friends, get the right job, and things like that. It’s like we spend our whole lives running, and don’t stop to think about where we’re running to, or why we’re even running in the first place. Maybe I’m wrong—maybe more of us lie awake at night than I think, wondering what we’re doing down here, and asking if there’s a God up in heaven who cares about all of us. I hope so. But I just worry that lots of us forget to do that.
Anyhow, I’ll be home this weekend for the funeral. It’ll be in a little side chapel at the First Lutheran Church ; they use it mostly for funerals, I guess. I remember once when I was much younger, I was in that chapel with my grandmother, and she told me that she thought she’d like to have her funeral there someday. It sort of creeped me out—to think that, one day, I would be back in that room, attending her funeral. And now, very soon, I will be. I still don’t know what to think about it all—my grandmother was a wonderful lady, and I know that she loved my brothers and me very much. The last time I saw her, it was in the nursing home, over Christmas break. She couldn’t talk very well, but I told her that I loved her, and that I’d miss her when I was gone. She understood what I’d said, and told me the same. And then I left, and now she’s gone. Death is too big for us to understand—any of us, no matter how much we’ve seen it—which is why, I think, we have funerals in churches. Things like that are too big for us, and so we bring them to God. I’m not going to understand death any more than I do now after the funeral, but I imagine that somehow, it will help to know that even if I don’t have all of the answers, God does.
There are some things in life, I think, that really count. Like love, for instance, and God, and what we’re here for, and what we’re going to do with our lives, and who we’re going to spend them with. Death has a way of concentrating the mind—of making you realize how important things like that are, and how so many other things that we spend our lives chasing after don’t really matter all that much. I’ve never been able to buy the notion that life is meaningless—that we’re just cosmic accidents, tricked by chemicals in our brain into thinking that things like Love, Truth, and Beauty really exist. I don’t buy that—I think they do exist. I think that, in this life, there are some things that count, and that those things are what make life worth the living. I even think that some of those things are stronger than death itself. I suppose, finally, that that’s why I am a Christian. I’m not going to get into what I think about all of the why questions right now—as much as I hold what I’ve found close to my heart, and care deeply about finding answers to the questions I haven’t figured out yet, those are the sorts of answers that we all have to find for ourselves. I just hope that, wherever you’re at, you start looking for them. I, for one, am still sorting them out.
Jordan Hylden ’06, Editor-in-Chief, is a Government concentrator in Currier House.