The Big Idea: considering death creates a better life.
My wife, Erin, sees my writing before anyone.
Without fail, she always offers me the same piece of advice. “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. You look like the bad guy, and I look like the angel.”
I’ll give that to her. Since most stories I tell are about the lessons I’ve learned, naturally, I reveal my screw-ups to the world. But honestly, even if I wanted to write about Erin’s mistakes, I don’t think she’s made enough. Me on other hand; I can fill books with my missteps.
It’s New Year’s Day, so as I think about all the times I’ve gotten it wrong in 2018, and what I want to do better in 2019, I will give this to myself. There have were flashes of thoughtfulness in which I really got it right last year. I’m an amazing husband from time to time — I can say that, right?
Well, I suppose there were more than flashes. Recently, there was a whole week in which my thoughtfulness superseded my selfishness.
The week began as Erin crashed into our bedroom. “Nate! I can’t find them!” She shouted with a panic about her voice.
“Huh?” I asked through a mouthful of toothpaste. It was early on a Monday, so my mind was full of conference call agenda items. I was trying to shake the weekend fog from my head.
“You can’t find what now?”
“My letters! I wanted to re-read my dad’s letters to me, and when I went to grab them, I realized I have no clue where they are. I know I put them with the letters you wrote, but I’m not sure where those are, either.”
Before Erin’s father passed some years prior, he affectionately authored a number of letters to Erin. Some were hand-written, others were transcribed as he neared the end of his life. His words mean the world to Erin, so she’s incredibly intentional about where she keeps them. As we bought and started to move into our new house, she bundled the letters she’s kept from her mom, brother, everyone, alongside the love notes I’d penned to her.
Counted together, those letters represented one hundred notes composed over six years. If there’s any single item that Erin could save in a house fire, it would be her box of letters. She could download photos from her online backup, she’d chance her engagement ring’s ability to withstand the flames, and she’d just replace any other possession. Those letters, though, those are irreplaceable – especially the ones her dad wrote.
“Oh, well, I’m sure they’re around here somewhere. When was the last time you read them?” I asked.
I could see the panic in Erin’s eyes as she answered, “Before we moved. So what if we don’t actually have them anymore? Did we throw them away, by accident? Or leave them behind?”
“Absolutely not,” I answered categorically, despite the fact I couldn’t say for certain.
“But how can you be so sure?” Erin challenged.
“Well, let’s just go through the whole house and all the boxes in the basement before we get too worried. Okay?”
Erin stared at me, as if to say she couldn’t just shed her anxiety on command. “That’s reasonable,” she agreed, “But you know how much those letters mean to me, right?”
I nodded, but Erin wasn’t convinced I fully understood. “Me losing my letters would be like you…” She paused to find a potent-enough comparison that would adequately illustrate how she felt.
“Well, it would be worse than you losing every single one of your possessions!”
“I see. That would be bad,” I nodded once more.
“Yes, it would be. So help me look for my letters, please!”
I trotted down to our basement to comb every cardboard box that had sat idle since our move. Fortunately, there were only a handful of boxes to search. Neither of us like clutter. Unfortunately, though, after ten minutes of hunting, I was convinced Erin’s letters weren’t hiding in our basement.
“Let’s look again tonight,” I offered Erin as I emerged from the stairwell. “Maybe we need to start over with fresh eyes.”
“Yeah, okay,” Erin conceded as she fought back tears.
A night of searching for Erin’s letters came and went, and still, they were nowhere to be found. Although I wouldn’t let it show, for Erin’s sake, I was genuinely considering the possibility I had thrown them out. It crushed me to feel I might be the source of so much anguish. I listened to Erin lament the probable loss of her dad’s final words as we lay in bed that night. If I hadn’t pitched them, I figured at the very least, it was conceivable that a friend had tossed them out during our move.
We woke early up the next morning and Erin returned to scouring every nook and cranny in our home. I even re-searched the same places I’d examined just ten hours earlier. I was trying to avoid accepting those letters’ dreadful fate.
I contemplated how long it would take me to re-write one letter for every major event and relationship milestone we’d shared over the previous three years. I knew I couldn’t reproduce her dad’s letters. But if I could replicate the ones I’d authored, it was a start. Then, right before I committed myself to rewriting every letter I could, I heard Erin cry out.
“Nate! Nate! I found them!”
Erin sprinted into our bedroom, clutching a black and red box of cinnamon pancake mix. Apparently, I love pancakes so much I figured a box of mix would be the safest place to stash Erin’s most valuable possessions. There was no way I’d pitch a pancake box.
Tears of joy and relief alike welled up in Erin’s eyes. She hugged that box like a mother who’d lost her child in the middle of Times Square. After collapsing onto our bed, exhausted from carrying so much worry for the last day, she whispered, “They’re still here.”
I sat down and embraced her. “They’re still here,” I repeated.
Erin left for work later that morning, and I had an idea. While I munched on a granola bar, I spread out Erin’s letters on our wood floor, and I snapped a photo of each. I arranged the images in a PDF file, and sent it to our local printing center. Now, not only would Erin have an online photo backup of each letter, we’d have a printed copy of them in a single, spiralbound booklet.
The low rumble of our garage door told me Erin was home from work later that evening. As she walked in and set her purse down, I laid the booklet on our kitchen table. I was beaming, proud of my work, and she quickly gathered that my grin was wider than usual.
“Did you have a good day?” Erin asked, studying my expression.
“Yeah, it was alright,” I replied. “Something came for you in the mail. It’s on the table,” I pointed to a stack of letters, strategically placed on top of the booklet I made.
Erin eyed me, curiously, as she grabbed the pile of papers. The binding must have stood out to her, as she let everything but the booklet slide from her grip. She stared down at the cover titled E’s Letters in disbelief.
“You wrote me more letters?”
“No, I made a book of your letters. I didn’t want you to go without them, so now you’ll always have them in one place.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“I didn’t, but I wanted to,” I smiled. Erin snuggled into one of my trademark bear hugs as I said, “You know I’d like to write you a letter every single day if I could, right?”
“I do, you really love me,” Erin whispered and nodded.
Work called me away the next morning. I spent the next three days on the road, and by the time I was finally headed home, I was beyond ready to see Erin. Her smile was all I could think about as I boarded my late-night flight. The allure of priority status and new cities had nothing on seeing my wife.
We rolled down the runway and lifted into the night sky. I watched the sparkling lights of Philadelphia fade to black, and marvelously, as we climbed higher, the song from the first dance at our wedding switched onto my playlist.
Suddenly, it was like I was living a real-life Hallmark movie. Time seemed to pause, as if the director was setting up his next shot. The stillness of the night sky and the sounds of my wedding sucked me into a world where I was the only passenger on flight 5789. I almost believed all one-hundred musicians of a full-scale orchestra were serenading me from the last twenty rows of the plane.
I choked back hot tears that threatened to slide down my cheek. I’ve been told crying is healthy. That it’s a cleansing experience, kind of like sweating out the emotions trapped inside you. I’ve tried to cry in the past, just to see if it works like that. It never did work, but this time, I didn’t have to try. It just happened.
The sweet sounds of our wedding faded out, and the words I’d say to Erin in the final moments of my life came into focus. Our recent search for Erin’s letters probably brought those words to my mind. I’m not certain, but whatever the reason, my life’s final words leapt to the center of my attention.
As I considered my parting words to Erin, I felt such an intense burden to write out every word that welled to the surface, that it was as if I really was dying. My thoughts took such control that I had to document my final words. I felt like I was in a race to write Erin before my hands stopped working and I truly did pass.
Even now as I write this, I fear I’m not communicating just how surreal an experience this was. Believing I was likely experiencing some type of pre-death premonition, and the possibility of an early death had become my reality, I could only focus on writing. What more could I do, knowing how much Erin loves her letters, and this one might be my last?
My words to Erin consumed my thoughts. They sprung forth with such vigor, like an underground geyser that had burst after years of harboring the tears and emotion I should have sweat out. It was like I could see Erin’s smile, sense her touch, feel her next to me. There was no fear in my mind – I ignored death in favor of spending my closing hour consumed by love. I think this is what John meant when he wrote in his letter, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
Eventually, I sat back in my seat and wiped my eyes, satisfied that Erin would now have my last letter, should that day have already come. I traipsed through the airport in a daze once my flight landed. Never before had I been more grateful to curl up next to my bride than on that night.
I hope Erin never has to read my final letter. Instead, I hope we die in the exact same moment. You see, whenever I leave for a trip and I hug Erin goodbye, she makes me promise to come back. If I die first, I’ll break my promise. But if she goes first, I couldn’t bear knowing she’ll never welcome me home again. Neither of those options seem very good, so I hope old age takes us together.
But regardless of how and when we go, considering death on that late-night flight brought me more than a final letter for Erin. It gave us a richer life – it brought me a stronger love, here and now.
When I recall that flight, I’m reminded to cherish the moments I have with those who matter most. Time only speeds up as we age, in the sense that when I was five years old, one year was 20% of my life. Patiently waiting for the calendar to reach Christmas once more was unbearable. But when I turn 50, one year will be a mere 2% of my life, so I better make the most of my time today, before the years really start to fly by.
The late Steve Jobs had something to say on making the most of each day:
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.
At face value, I like his message. I agree, life’s too short to spend it apart from what matters most. I’m uncertain of its usefulness, however, because I don’t think Jesus would say life is primarily about doing the things we want to do. I think he’d say life is about becoming holy, not just happy. Our level of desire for the plans and people that fill our days shouldn’t be the determining factor for how we live. Instead, I think he’d want us to look in the mirror and ask, “Am I trying to accomplish God’s purposes, or mine?”
The process of shaping our character to more closely mirror Jesus’ is what’s called sanctification. It’s to be made holy, not only happy, and it’s how we’re able to live out God’s purpose for our lives. To sanctify something literally means to set it apart for a specific purpose. That makes things simple, I think. I know I’ll be able to reflect on a life well-lived if only I do my best to fulfill God’s plan. I don’t need to chase the ever-shifting, often-deceiving desires that churn within me.
Many say relying on a creator for our purpose is too simple; it’s demeaning, not desirable. A god is limiting, not freeing. I wonder though, can our lives really have purpose – can they have meaning – without a creator? If there was no intentional design behind our lives, if we’re all just cosmic accidents, what would be the point?
You see, paintings have meaning because they’re born from an artist. As the artist works, (s)he express emotion, ideas, history; there’s intention behind the creative process. If the artist produces a truly intricate painting, we say it should live forever. We preserve it in a gallery for the benefit of future generations.
On the other hand, if I were to randomly knock over a jar of paint onto a canvas, it would be destined for the trash can. We wouldn’t care too much about it – there was no purpose behind its creation. What’s more, we certainly wouldn’t say a flawless Monet painted itself. Something can’t arise from nothing. And even if it could, how meaningful is something built from nothing?
We like to think of our lives as paintings. We all feel our lives have some degree of purpose, even if we can’t put our finger on it, exactly. We feel we have the right to be preserved, and dignified. We’re horrified when someone taints life, spilling paint on the canvas, if you will, through emotional, physical, or any other abuse.
Ultimately, what we’re really saying is life is intrinsically valuable. We’re more than accidents. This is because our lives are of infinite consequence when a creator’s designed us, and destined us to be preserved in a gallery, not dumped in a trash can. Pausing to consider these questions – where we came from, our creation, along with where we’re going, our destiny – will create a better “dash” between our birth and death dates.
The alternative to this perspective is described in Thomas Nagel’s The Meaning of Life, as the atheist philosopher writes:
…it wouldn’t matter if you had never existed. And after you have gone out of existence, it won’t matter that you did exist. Of course, your existence matters to other people – your parents and others who care about you – but taken as a whole, their lives have no point either, so it ultimately doesn’t matter that you matter to them.
Putting myself in Mr. Nagel’s shoes, I’d have to agree. If we came from some molecular collision, and we’re just hardwired to survive through evolutionary process, what would be the point? If there’s no higher destiny than to be buried in the ground, why try to dignify my life, or that of others? We’re all just flashes in time, soon to be smothered by the natural process of aging, right?
Although I have many friends who assent to this idea with their lips, they reject it with their lives. Their head says it’s logical, while their heart says it’s not livable. You don’t need to collect love letters to see that people and relationships should be treasured.
Taking this all together, it’s easy to see why John 3:16 is among the most memorized, beloved verses in the Bible. It begins with the deepest source of purpose for life, “For God so loved the world…” It concludes with the hope that we, “…shall not perish but have eternal life.”
That’s not all, either. The beginning and end of John 3:16 hang on the reality in the middle, the weight of which I felt as I wrote Erin’s final letter. Loves conquers death. The full verse says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Do you see it yet? In Jesus’ sense of the word, do you see it? God believes you are of such eternal worth and value that he saved you by sending his son to this earth. And because love conquered death on the day his son hung on a cross, a cross built by human hands, we can all be together in the end. We won’t be dumped in a trash can, written off like spilled paint.
That is staggering when you think about it. No other god claims to have experienced death, let alone death of the most excruciating variety. But our God has, out of love, and that love is reflected in all of us. It’s what compels us to spend hours searching for lost letters. It’s why I was crying while flying.
I suppose this has been a more emotional post than is typical, so let me just say, we don’t discover God by feeling alone. As I sat in that airplane, the love I felt for Erin had been developed through years of doing life together. I recalled memories, I considered the dreams we share with each other. Likewise, faith in God, or more generally, a creator, is not about an emotional leap. It’s about considering where we came from, why we’re here, where we’re going, and then living life accordingly, solidifying belief through experience.
However, most of us avoid thinking about these questions, let alone living out the answers. For good reason, too. They’re tough questions. Asking about “the meaning of life” feels too big of a subject to even approach, so we often don’t. We prefer to look in the mirror and ask what we want from life.
We settle for lives built on happiness, or love, or doing good, without ever considering how these things can hold meaning in and of themselves without any other context. It’s always the context that gives the middle meaning, so we have to consider if there was intention behind our beginning, and a destiny to our eventual end.
Despite my experience on that late-night flight, I still focus on the middle of my life, and what I want out of it. I forget the reason behind my beginning, and the end that awaits me. But when that fateful day arrives, when we read our loved one’s final letter, and when life speeds up, I think we’ll all wish we’d spent more time considering the context to our lives.
Hopefully, it won’t require crying while flying to stop and reflect on life’s big questions this year.