The team’s ambush in the bombed-out village had fallen apart — the Germans blew up the sniper in his tower, the US soldiers’ ammunition was gone. As they retreated across a bridge, the captain tried to destroy it behind them to prevent the enemy from pursuing them further, but he was shot before he could detonate the bomb. Before his men’s eyes, as they worked to stop the bleeding, he died. One second, he was there, talking to them; the next second he was gone.
This scene from the movie “Saving Private Ryan” has hovered in my mind for days, peppering me with questions.
…What is that thing that makes our bodies alive and when absent leaves an empty shell?
…Where does it come from and where does it go?
…How should this change the way I live?
When we found our daughter unresponsive in her bed, her body was still warm. Yet, the girl I knew and loved no longer inhabited that body — she had left it behind. I knew, even though I tried to deny it as I compressed her chest and blew air into her lungs, as I watched the paramedics work on her in the back of the ambulance, that she had gone too far to return. The life in her was irretrievable.
Humans are the only beings on earth (we think) that know that we are alive and that one day we will die. For millennia, we have created stories around the idea that we are not merely bodies and how our not-body selves continue to exist when our bodies die.
Despite these stories, most people never make peace with their own death. We hate it. We dread it. We resist it in many and unique ways.
…We amass huge quantities of money to try to extend our lives.
…We undergo lifting and tucking surgeries, take medications and supplements, and work out all in an effort to keep ourselves young.
…We play life safe because dying is too great a risk to take.
Thomas H. Groome writes in his book “What Makes Us Catholic” that “Jesus defeated the powers of evil – they cannot finally triumph – and [Jesus] reversed suffering and death to go backwards into new life. …It really doesn’t take much faith to say that suffering and evil have the last word. Real faith is required, however, to see beyond them, in spite of them, to the goodness of life in the world.” *
If we truly believe that death works backwards into new life, what are we afraid of? Why do we fear taking risks? For what purpose are we hoarding wealth?
When we live in fear of death, we waste the opportunities given us to experience the fullness of life and the joy of God found in every moment. Fear of death causes us to hole up in no when we should leap forward in yes. We clench what we have tightly and keep our eyes in, focused only on self-preservation. We live safe boring lives that benefit no one.
The writer of Ecclesiastes thought long and hard about the safe life. Towards the end of the book, he wrote this:
Be generous: Invest in acts of charity. Charity yields high returns.
Don’t hoard your goods; spread them around.
Be a blessing to others. This could be your last night.
Oh, how sweet the light of day,
And how wonderful to live in the sunshine!
Even if you live a long time, don’t take a single day for granted.
Take delight in each light-filled hour,
Remembering that there will also be many dark days
And that most of what comes your way is smoke.
You who are young, make the most of your youth.
Relish your youthful vigor.
Follow the impulses of your heart.
If something looks good to you, pursue it.
But know also that not just anything goes;
You have to answer to God for every last bit of it.
Live footloose and fancy-free—
You won’t be young forever.
Youth lasts about as long as smoke. (Ecclesiastes 11:1-2, 7-10. Emphasis mine.)
This man isn’t saying to live for yourself. He’s describing the life unafraid of death — a life spent for God. He advises us to take risks, seize the opportunities, and pour into others, because the stuff of life vanishes like smoke.
What could you do if you were no longer afraid of death?
*To my Protestant friends and family, settle yourselves down. Do not freak out. No need to excommunicate. I am reading this book to learn in their words what differentiates Catholics from Protestants and to see what we have in common.