What is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying. I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.
-- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (trans. Justin O’Brien)
“As He died to make men holy,” says a hymn whose drumbeat sent armies to battle in a righteous cause, “let us die to make men free.” I grew up with people who would sing “let us live to make men free.” Liberals don’t like to prescribe martyrdom; they want to stand for life rather than for death.
Yet the questions of what to live and what to die for can’t be pulled apart. If you’re lucky or obsessed enough to figure out before you die what it is that you can die for, it had better be what you lived for. If it’s not, you’ll want to make some changes, and if you don’t have time for change you’ll be in trouble, wandering like Marley’s Ghost amidst occasions of compassion to which you’ve lost the key. As an example: many say “I would, of course, die for my children,” which is a pretty good way of saying that you ought to live for them. Whether you have actually done so is a different question. What you actually die for will be the thing you actually lived for, unless you catch yourself in time. Yeshua said that the last laborer in the vineyard would be paid the same as the first; but I think it might be good if those for whom we claim to labor had some benefit from us during the day. If not, then in what sense were we “for” them? Perhaps God accepts deathbed confessions, but people not so much, and only at a discount.
I met a lady last week who said with a smile “I’m in the right place. I’m where I’m supposed to be.” Her “place” was flat in a hospital bed, attached to bags of medication that did not entirely relieve her pain. She knew that in a few days she would die. What could she mean by “in the right place”? She was praising our care: she didn’t want to be elsewhere, in the care of other people. She was also owning the moment, this time of her life and death. Her mind – or as people like me are supposed to say, her spirit – was not struggling to escape.
She was held in place. “Held” might mean “imprisoned,” by her sickness and her limit. But “held” might also mean “comforted,” by our attention and our touch. She was under pressure, even oppressed; but the holding that she named was the pressure of our ministry that stood in for God’s arms. She knew the weight of her predicament, and allowed it to settle among us. We held it with love and medicine, blankets and pillows, but if she had not settled she could not have felt the comfort of our care. It’s a matter of Newtonian physics: to every action an equal and opposite reaction. She had to press on us before we could press back. We could not take her weight unless she gave it to us. What doesn’t settle can’t be born.
Milan Kundera wrote a novel to say that being may be heavy or light, and its lightness is unbearable. When I first felt the lightness it was summer, and I was walking from my grandfather’s farmhouse on an errand to the country store down the road when something snapped, and I was watching myself. No preposition captures it: should I say I looked “down” from “above”, or “in” from “outside”? The self-evidence of I was dissolved. What I saw instead was like a cubist painting. For the first time in eleven years of life I knew that this overstuffed corporeal dissonance in coke-bottle glasses and Our Gang shorts, this agglomeration of elbows and earlobes, nose and knees, had no entitlement in a strange land. I had thought the “I” was obvious, but now I saw it was a preposterous theorem. Absurd, as Camus would say. This explained a lot. I didn’t like this moment; I had become too light. My being had slipped its moorings.
“Having a wonderful time,” goes the joke, “Wish I were here.” I wanted to settle back into the frame that had been prepared for me, so I could be “right where I should be,” but like the foam cutout for someone else’s tools the place never quite fit again. Or perhaps, because I had lost my weight, I no longer pressed the matter in the right way, and so it could not rise to meet me.
I’ve been looking for my lost weight. If I find it and can press myself beneath it, I’ll be in the right place, wherever that is. And I’ll know what I’m living or dying for, though I may not choose to tell you.