I have to admit that taking Einstein’s point of view seems extremely difficult. Even if I’m ready to accept that death is simply a point of time, there’s no escaping the fact that I am tied down to experiencing time in my relative order of events.
That also means I will have to live the rest of my life without whomever it is that is no longer present alongside me at the same time.
Let’s try another thought experiment: Let’s not dwell on what happens when or after we die.
“But,” you might say, “how will I be remembered? My legacy is on the line!” Forget about it.
“Ah,” I can hear someone protest, “I believe in heaven—I’m set!” Forget about that, too.
It is our obsession with eternal life that makes us do things we’ll end up regretting, or regret things we could have done.
We are so afraid of leaving without having done anything to objectively improve our condition we measure lives by unused potential, wasted potential, or great achievements.
“Meaningless,” cries the author of Ecclesiastes, “Everything is Meaningless!” The dust will return to the Earth, and the spirit to God, and it’s all meaningless.
The only way to live a full life is to accept the fact that death is the finish line, that anything I tried and everything I did do ends the moment I do. My time, quite literally, has stopped.
This way, every second must be geared towards filling my and my neighbor’s cup.
Once I am gone, I cannot fill anyone’s cup.
John Donne, a 17th-century metaphysical poet, dwells in concepts that frankly go miles over my head most of the time. His Holy Sonnets wrestle with salvation, redemption, guilt, and—for our intents and purposes—death.
Death be not Proud is one of my favorite pieces of literature in the English language. Down to the punctuation, this sonnet is a language lover’s dream, or nightmare. Maybe both.
Donne starts out gathering all his intellect to defeat death, personified, in a battle of wit.
“Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe . . .”
As a child facing up to the schoolyard bully, Donne tells death that his power is useless and frankly (pardon the pun) overkill in a world where almost anything can give better respite than dying.
I want to focus on the last lines.
The last two lines (13 and 14) rhyme with the first line, mirroring the message it pounds at the beginning.
Play close attention:
12 . . . why swell’st thou then?
13 one short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
14 And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.
Did you catch it?
“And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.”
We’ll get back to that in a bit.
John Donne liked to wallow in those subjects that we don’t have answers to. In this way, playing games of wit against grace and redemption and death, he talked down these subjects, often leaving the argument without explaining his conclusion.
The whole point of not answering the question is highlighting the humanity of the issue. Death is one of the few moments no one can experience for you—but then again, neither is life.
In medieval times, painters left a skull in their paintings, a memento mori—or, “remember you will die.” No matter how hard you try, death is something that eventually comes around.
Riches, knowledge, abilities, strength—having or not having these things doesn’t matter.
To people living under the shadow of a medieval church, impending death demanded perfection without which one could not be saved. Every moment could be your last, so memento mori.
Somehow, this fear has stuck with us.
Death has a proud hold over us.
There’s a translation of Donne’s sonnet that ends the last line a little differently.
“And Death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die!”
What’s the difference, you ask?
The punctuation is different. If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I’m going to unleash super-nerdom at you, but I promise it’s worth it.
Donne wrote in a comma on purpose. With a semi-colon, and the exclamation point at the end, the victory lies with somehow cheating death.
And so, death becomes a barrier between you and your idea of everlasting life. Death is something you have to somehow triumph over.
We either win heaven or a foundation in our name, or both, and the pressure’s on.
Notice how close that sounds to a medieval thought process?
Let’s substitute the semicolon for a comma and the arrogant exclamatory for a quiet, definitive period.
Those of you who read music know that a comma can signify a breath. Poetry is written in meter, meant to be read at a pace. This comma is a breath. A single, slow breath.
“And death shall be no more,” breathe, “death thou shalt die.”
See how peaceful that is?
Death is not an insuperable barrier—it’s just a breath. Just a breath separates us from life, and life everlasting.
I’m not trying to cheat death. I’m not trying to defeat it. I face it and realize it’s just a breath. Einstein stared at it and said, “That is nothing.”
If I downgrade death to its rightful place, Life can be the only thing left on my radar.
Life—true, meaningful life—cannot exist when I am worrying about my own fate.
Death really is a deeply spiritual experience, with very vivid emotions. I propose we stop mourning. Easier said than done, I admit, but I want us to really try.
The first step is to forget about what happens once we do kick the bucket. Let’s focus on bringing life to those around us. Let’s focus on being a community that not only shares in our grief but in our willingness to help and to embrace each other.
Death would be so much more bearable if there were fewer people facing it alone.
I want to challenge myself here to forget about earning an afterlife and making it my goal to make sure that no one I meet has to go through loss alone.
After all, death is nothing, it’s just a breath. If you’re not religious, death doesn’t have to be what you measure up your life against. Death can be just the last milestone in a life given to others.
If you’re religious, death isn’t the primary gateway to paradise or an abyss you face, depending on your actions. Death can be just the last milestone in a life given to others.
Death is nothing. Death is just a comma. Death, thou shalt die.