There’s nothing in the world which teaches me to appreciate life quite the way death does.
When I was young, death seemed so far off for me that it didn’t seem real. Although I have a vivid memory of seeing the body of a man who had just been killed when I was about 10, that didn’t seem like something that could happen to me. It was only years later that I really found meaning in that.
I was one of the lucky ones who never had anybody in his life die other than the people we expect. My mother’s father died when I was about 5. I remember going to the funeral home and touching his cold body, but death didn’t seem surprising with an older person. All the other deaths I saw in the coming years were older people who were related to me. Not a one seemed surprising or “too soon.”
Some people experience a rough early introduction to death — especially those who unexpectedly lose a parent, a sibling or a close friend — but for me, death was almost an abstract concept.
Until the last few years. Death seems very real to me now.
Once you get into the middle years of your life, you see more and more people dying — and everything looks different. I wrote about that sensation awhile back when Leonard Nimoy died, and it seems as though I’ve thought about it a lot since then.
The wife of a former political client was killed in a car accident. I knew her well and fought with her constantly. We were even business partners briefly. But it was a shock when she was killed.
I was once negotiating to buy a small community newspaper from a man when I got word that he was dead. I had put my latest counteroffer in a letter and sent it to him, so I was waiting for him to call me. Instead, he went outside of the building which was both his home and his office — and he shot himself.
I could go on. A former close political friend in Birmingham. The audio producer who recorded and produced the audio mix for my film. People I went to high school with, at least one by suicide. The list seems to go on and on.
And I’ve had several brushes with death for myself, even though it’s still hard for me to believe I could have died.
I had breast cancer (and surgery) a decade ago. I had serious blood clots in my lungs four or five years ago. I could have died. The doctors and nurses were annoyed with me that I kept joking about it.
“Do you understand that this could kill you?” one horrified nurse asked.
Death is very real to me now — and it makes me desperate to give meaning to the decades of good work and personal time that I have left. I want to get all the living and meaning and loving that I can out of every single day — and I often don‘t do that. Not yet.
One friend’s step-father died this week and she was devastated by that. Another friend’s father died. She flew hundreds of miles to be with him and it appeared he had recovered, but as soon as she got home, she got the call that he had died.
I can’t find meaning in life — not the kind that I want — in the pursuit of money and worldly success which seems to mean so much to so many people. I would still love to make a fortune as a byproduct of doing things that are important to me, but I can’t make those things my measuring stick.
I realize this puts me out of step with this culture.
More and more, I am realizing that my real struggle in life is against a culture that has values and aspirations which violate everything that I believe is important. I find myself looking to pieces of the past that this culture has rejected and discarded as meaningless — and I realize that meaning for me has a lot more to do with the things that mattered to people a few hundred years ago than it does with what my culture teaches.
Over the last 10 years or so, I have slowly put together bits and pieces of the message that I have for the world. It’s not primarily political. It’s not about success or being moral or anything of that nature.
My message is about thinking for yourself — questioning the culture which you have been taught to blindly accept and then seeing whether meaning is found instead in going back to values and community practices which our modern culture sees as worthless.
This is where meaning is found, at least by my reckoning. But thinking in these terms and living with these values is a lost art. That’s why I have to keep digging and why I have to keep finding meaning and why I have to keep preaching more of this meaning as I uncover it.
This life offers tremendous meaning and joy and happiness, but only if you’re willing to reject the values which are leading a once-great nation to moral and personal ruin.
So when I see death around me, I just see how far I still have to travel to accomplish this work. I love this life and I love the meaning I find in it. I want to still be finding new meaning — and joyfully sharing that meaning with others — on the day I die.
And if I live my life as I should, I will find myself surrounded by dear people who love me when that dark day finally comes.