'Be prepared': Why does death take us by surprise?
A beloved relative died in October— not an immediate family member, but someone who, throughout many years, was a reliable, solid presence; one of those even-keeled anchors that every extended family needs. As he grew older, he was widowed and experienced the loneliness that accompanies loss. We kept in touch. I suppose I wanted to say, in my own way. "I too wish to be an anchor."
Why does death take us so breathlessly by surprise?
I think of my friend on the Saturday before the fall that ended his life. On that chilly fall morning, he arose with plans and hopes. It would not have occurred to him that this was his last Saturday. His last Saturday to savor a cup of rich coffee, to look out at the dying fall flowers of his late wife's once magnificent garden.
As we grow older, we view death with new eyes. When we're young, it's mostly older people who die. We don't literally believe we're immortal, but in some distant corner of our mind, we entertain the suspicion. Aunt Myrtle dies of a disease common to the family, and we dismiss our risk thinking, "they'll find a cure for that before I get old. My life isn't yet a third over," we think, or "I'm barely halfway there. Isn't everyone living to their nineties now?"
Death is a far-off mirage in a desert full of preoccupations. We push aside thoughts of mortality.
Not so, as we grow older. As we reach those middle years when many major life decisions have been made, or when the years stretching backward start to outnumber the ones lying before us, we begin to assess our lives. Have we done well? Were the decisions good ones?
Why haven't I achieved more? Why do I still wage some of the same old battles? Why am I yet so imperfect?
I find solace in a quote from the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner: "In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished."
Perfection is not attainable. The things attainable— in this life, on this earth— are rarely enough for our deep longings.
God knows the greatest saints were sinners, as well. The key is they stayed on the journey, picking themselves up over and over again. This world was not made for perfection, but to be lived moving forward, not regretting or second-guessing the past.
The writer Father Ron Rolheiser explained Rahner's quote in a 1994 essay: "We are congenitally over-charged and over-built for this earth, infinite spirits living in a finite situation, hearts made for union with everything and everybody meeting only mortal persons and things."
We deeply yearn to be, and to know, more than this life allows.
Had my friend known he had entered his final week, he might have felt incomplete— heard the distant cords of a symphony not yet finished, or perhaps in his case, the melody to an Irish tune whose final notes remained elusive.
So, we live in hope that a perfect union lies before us, a union we cannot see. St. Paul reminds us that "hope that is seen is no hope at all." (Rom 8:24)
In her poem "My Work is Loving the World," Mary Oliver sums it up for me:
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
By Effie Caldarola, an OSV staff writer.