The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Reflections for Ash Wednesday

Sam Bush / 2.26.20

James Parker wrote a delightful, 500-word gem in this month’s Atlantic entitled Ode to Middle Age. If you only have ten minutes to spare, skip the commentary and just read the whole thing here right now. Not only is it a refreshing tribute to one’s aging experience — you don’t have to be middle-aged to appreciate his insight on getting older — but it’s a timely reflection on how we the living collectively perceive death, and just in time for Ash Wednesday. Here’s the conclusion:

Limits, limits, thank God for limits. Thank God for the things you cannot do, and that you know you cannot do. Thank God for the final limit: Death, who now gazes at you levelly from the foot of your bed, and with an ironical twinkle, because you still don’t completely believe in him.

At any rate, if you’re reading this, you’re not dead. So: Should you leap gladly, grinningly, into these contradictory middle years, when everything is speeding up and slowing down, and becoming more serious and less serious? The middle-aged person is not an idiot. Middle age is when you can throw your back out watching Netflix. The middle-aged person is being consumed by life, and knows it. Feed the flame – that’s the invitation. Go up brightly.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but what struck me the most was Parker’s playful acknowledgement that death is something we can never fully understand because we, the living, have never experienced it. It’s a place we know exists — and we know plenty of people who have been there — but we have yet to see any pictures of it or heard stories about it. Death may be gazing at you from the foot of your bed, but good luck wrapping your mind around what he has in store for you.

I was reminded of Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” Hirst’s famous work is simply a full-sized tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine, but, if you’ve ever visited the Met, it’s likely made a lasting impression. When you walk around Hirst’s enormous shark and stare into its gaping mouth, it’s easy to imagine that you’re about to be eaten. Hirst is practically offering you a near-death experience, one that could give you fresh perspective on your life. He’s essentially giving you a chance to start over, knowing that death will inevitably come and that your life is a gift. And yet, the concept he’s introducing you to is impossible to comprehend (at least, in the mind of someone living). You look into the shark’s mouth and imagine you’re going to die; but only turn around, whisper to your wife something like, “Woah, freaky!” and then discuss where to find the best falafel.

Likewise, James Parker knows he’s going to die. And he has resigned to “being consumed by life.” What else can you do? One could interpret his acquiescence as nihilistic, but I find it freeing. It lets me off the hook of having to understand death and allows me to simply live my life.

Of course, as a Christian, the only thing that is more freeing than the idea that I don’t need to understand death is the reality that I am already dead. As Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” What was once a looming fear is now a reality. The fear has already been realized by the One who died for me. My gratitude for my limits has to go hand-in-hand with my gratitude for God’s limitlessness. Only because the Son of Man was lifted up am I fully free to “go up brightly.”

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