Jon Kennedy
Jon Kennedy

Jon Kennedy's 'Postcards from
the Nanty Glo in My Mind'

Death as a way of life

I want to change the pace a bit today, not sure if I'll go back into the "social upheaval since the '60s" mine again to bring out new fuel for our collective furnace, but I have been wanting to share something I got in an email last week on a totally different topic. And as we ease into the holiday weekend, it seems a good time to take a break and look in a different direction.

I was amazed at this because it's a graduation speech by someone I hadn't had much respect for up to now. For several not profound or lofty reasons, I've had my personal boycott of Apple Computer for some years. Not only had I decided over a decade ago I'd never buy one of their computers, I decided I'd spread the word that I don't like Apple much as a company. But the speech is by the co-founder and present CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, who is, as most people up on current culture know, something of an industrial hero here in my present baileywick, Silicon Valley, as one of the pioneers of the personal computer. He was speaking to a graduating class at Stanford University, which is my favorite university, having spent 11 years of my life there, probably the longest stint in one career course I'll ever do. Pitt (UPJ) and UCLA, my alma maters, still rate in my affections, but Stanford is where I made the great labor of love of my life and learned the most about myself. I read the emailed copy of Steve Jobs' graduation talk with a little skepticism and mostly out of respect for the person who sent it to me.

The whole speech was worth reading, but this part is what I found most arresting and surprising:

My third story is about death.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

I was especially struck by this profound bit of wisdom because, as regulars here know, I read voraciously in Orthodox spiritual fathers and many of them make an identical point. Some of them have even kept a coffin in their monastery cells and slept in it to remind them of death. Their motive for wanting that remembrance would be the pursuit of prayer and holiness, but even what Jobs says about staying humble and transparent ("naked") is consonant with the teachings of the church fathers.

It's important to stress that Orthodoxy, or Christianity more widely defined, is not a religion of death and to specify that the point of keeping death in mind is to make life more precious and focus on the real priorities worth living for, even as Steve Jobs says. The Faith is not nihilistic, not saying "is that all there is?" The second (spiritual) birth that is central to Christianity is birth to eternal and abundant life. But it is nurtured by the humble awareness that the strength and the temptations of "life" in the temporal world are capable of stealing away our joy, which is the new and unending life already begun but not fully attained. "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life," Romans 6:4; "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in [or through] Christ Jesus our Lord," Romans 6:23.

From a most unexpected quarter, some thoughts that could change lives.

—Webmaster Jon Kennedy


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