“Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”(1)
It is a rare gift, in this age of distractions, to have five minutes to rest and reflect. Recently, I had the opportunity to take an entire afternoon and do nothing. I was in the desert Southwest of the United States surrounded by brown, barren mountains, desert scrub and cacti, and a variety of small birds. As I looked out over the contrasting horizon of azure sky and brown earth, I was struck by my own insignificance—something I rarely allow myself to think about as I routinely fill my days with busyness. That topography of sky and soil, bird and flower had been there long before I arrived and would surely remain long after I had departed—both from my visit and upon my departure from this world.
Despite this more sobering thought, the gift of undistracted space nourished me. I could revel in the symphony of songbirds all around me, marvel at the cataclysmic forces of nature that formed the mountains and valleys around me. I could wonder at my place in the vastness of the creation and feel my smallness and my transience. Having this kind of time to sit and to reflect is a rarity, and is just as fleeting as the birds that flew around me.
Though writing hundreds of years ago, Blaise Pascal spoke prophetically about the spirit of our age. With the transience of life and the specter of death facing all, most seek lives of distraction. Whether or not we recognize that the fear of death is an underlying, albeit unconscious motivation, we nevertheless recognize how often we fill our lives in order to obscure these realities. Whether it is in the juggling endless priorities, the relentless busyness of our age, or perpetual media noise, our lives are so full that we rarely find the space or time to reflect honestly about anything. Particularly in Western societies, mindless consumption numbs us to the eventuality of our mortal condition and our finitude. The advertising industry is not unaware of our propensity to consumptive distraction. Marketers spent over 295 billion dollars in total media advertising in 2007.(2) Perhaps they know that humans mistakenly equate vitality with the ability to consume.
It is easy to understand how the fear of death and suffering would compel human beings to live lives of distraction. Yet, the cost of that distraction is a pervasive and deadening apathy—apathy not simply as the inability to care about anything deeply, but the diminishment for engagement that comes from caring about the wrong things. Kathleen Norris laments:
“It is indeed apathy’s world when we have so many choices that we grow indifferent to them even as we hunger for still more novelty. We discard real relationships in favor of virtual ones and scarcely notice that being overly concerned with the thread count of cotton sheets and the exotic ingredients of gourmet meals can render us less able to care about those who scrounge for food and have no bed but the streets.”(3)
The ancient Hebrew poets, while meditating on the brevity of life, prayed, “So teach us to number our days that we may present to you a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). It was the inevitability of death that motivated this prayer for wisdom. This was a wisdom that didn’t try to hide from the realities of life—be they joys or sorrows—but rather sought to keep finitude ever before it. Indeed the poem ends with a cry for God to “confirm the work of our hands.” Numbering life’s days led to meaningful engagement in the world and in human work—and this was the mark of wisdom.
As I pondered the landscape around me, I thought of dear loved ones, both family and friends, who will not look on this earthly horizon any more. I was gripped by the pain of their loss and shaken by the fact that one day my own eyes will cease to behold earthly beauty. Yet rather than disengaging or distracting myself from the pain of these thoughts, I desire to number my own days. In dealing with significant loss and pain it is certainly understandable how one would long for escape, but facing the pain and attending to it is the way to develop a heart of wisdom and a life full of meaning and confirmation.
Sadly, the reminders of our own mortality lead some to distraction. Yet it can lead others to wise engagement. Jesus, himself, faced his own death with intention and purpose. “I am the Good Shepherd…and I lay down my life for the sheep… No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative” (John 10:14a-18). The way of wisdom demonstrated in the life of Jesus gives flesh to the ancient psalmist’s exhortation. As he numbered his days, he calls those who would follow to engage mortality as a catalyst for purposeful living. While following Jesus insists on our laying down our lives in his service, it can be done in the hope that abundant life is truly possible even in the darkest of places. For the one who laid his life down is the one who was raised. He is the one who declared, “I am the resurrection and the life; the one who believes in me will live even though he dies.”
(1) Blaise Pascal, Pensees, (Penguin Books: New York, 1966), 37.
(2) As referenced by Allan Sloan in “Fuzzy Bush Math” CNN Money, September 4, 2007.
(3) Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life, (Riverhead Books: New York, 2008), 125.
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