The other night I was watching the TV show Mind Games and Clark, played by Steve Zahn, had a discussion with a client that was emotionally distraught over his culpability in the death of his brother.
The young man said to Clark:
Why did Michael die? It can’t be for nothing!
We all want to think our life matters. We all want to think that when someone dies tragically or unexpectedly that their death had some sort of meaning. (see God Killed Our Baby: Isn’t God Awesome?) It is hard for us to embrace the reality that our life, outside of those we love, doesn’t matter much. We like to think that our death will have some meaning or that in dying a greater good is accomplished, but the truth is most of us will live, die, and in a generation or two be little more than a faint memory or an entry in genealogy chart.
Only a handful of people ever make it to the pages of the history books, and those who do will likely have their life covered in a couple of paragraphs. The rest of us will live, hopefully enjoy a good, peaceable, long life, and then we will die. If we are buried in a cemetery there will be a marker memorializing our life, but, in time, the marker will fade and will one day become unreadable. For those who us who will be cremated when we die, there will be no marker, our ashes will be scattered, and outside of the memories our children and grandchildren have and the little trinkets of our life we leave them in our will, our life will fade away.
We spend a lot of time talking about making our mark in life, about making a difference, about making the world a better place. These are wonderful ideas, but I fear that we easily are deceived about our status and importance. People tell us how vital and important we are; why life couldn’t go on without us. If we are lucky, the local newspaper will write a glowing obituary about our life. Those who know us will read it and think what a great person we were. But quicker than the newspaper is placed in the bottom of the birdcage, they will move on with their lives, and decades later we will be but a faint memory, a story told at Christmas and on Mother’s/Father’s Day.
Smart is the person who sees themselves as they are. Pride, arrogance, and an inflated view of self and our value to the human race deludes us into thinking that we are something we are not. Humility and realism keep such thoughts of grandeur in check.
Bruce, man you are a real bummer today! No, just a realist. Yes, I want my life to matter, yes I want to make a difference, yes I want to be remembered generations from now, but I know better, and unless I become president or a serial killer, I know that a few decades from now I will be forgotten. My children may swear to me as I am dying that they will never forget me, but I know that they will, in time, move on with their life, making new memories with the living.
My Dad’s parents died 50 years ago. My Mom’s Mom died 20 years ago. Dad died 27 years ago and Mom died 23 years ago. While I miss them dearly, the only time I remember them is when I look at a picture or I am talking with a family member about the past. They are all dead, never to walk again on this earth. I am still alive and my life continues to move forward until it too will be no more.
Clark reassured the young man that his brother’s death wasn’t for nothing, and as he said this I smiled and shook my head. I know better and so does Clark.
And the power of religion lies in the fact that it gives people meaning and purpose and a promise that they will live on after death. It doesn’t matter whether life after death is true. All that matters is that people think it is. A topic of discussion for another day is whether thoughts of the afterlife keeps people from living the only life they will ever have. Instead of enjoying this life they offload enjoying it in hope of a future divine payoff.