We’ve all heard it before: “The best things in life … aren’t things!” But if we’re honest we have to admit that we have a high view of things. Our “someday” lists are full of things we’d like to do, places we’d like to go, and things we’d love to own. And yet, when death barges into our private world, our priorities get reshuffled if only for a season.
I remember attending a memorial service for a young 52-year-old mother of four who suffered a massive heart attack and died suddenly. She was a runner, an aerobics instructor, and an all-around great person. Today as I sat down to write this column I heard via email that another friend was back in the hospital with further complications from a major heart problem.
And, to add to the story, another email told of an acquaintance in another state whose wife died suddenly last night from a brain aneurysm.
Though we try to avoid thinking about it, death is an ever-present reality. It prowls around without being seen most of the time, and then pounces. It is a robber that steals away what is precious while seemingly being able to overcome all our best attempts at exercise, nutrition and healthy living. We may be able to forestall death, but we’ll never be able to beat it. In fact, when death comes suddenly to a friend or family member it reminds us vividly that we’re never promised another day.
As I sat in the memorial service I started wondering what the other thousand or so folks in the auditorium were thinking. As we listened to our friend’s children extol their mother’s virtues and fun-loving disposition I doubt anyone was thinking about how to get a bigger boat, a faster car, or the newest television. We were all thinking about our kids and wondering if, when it was out turn, they would have such genuinely wonderful things to say. Would anyone come to our funeral?
Would our friends and the community around us make the effort to describe our life as a “life well lived?”
I imagine that some of the husbands in the crowd were feeling like I was, and wanting just to hold our wives and let them know just how great they were. We watched our friend, heroically sitting in the front row with his kids as we mourned the loss of his wife, best friend, lover and genuine companion. We knew his pain was just beginning, and yet our thoughts were mostly on a renewed commitment to enjoy our relationships now, to the fullest, knowing that we didn’t know how long we had.
A week has passed and I suspect that most of those who attended the service have shuffled back into the old paths, the old ruts of their lives. But I hope not! I hope that the death of one we loved has reinvigorated our love for those who live.
The best things in life aren’t things; they are people and the relationships we can have with them. Sure, sharing things and experiences and adventures make these relationships fun and exciting, but take away all the extras and you’re left with this truth: As human beings we were created for community, for relationship. Our hearts depend on love and companionship. Not one of us is complete alone.
It turns out that relationships are really the foundation of any ethical system. Our ethics are really pretty simple: How do we live in relationship with others? How do we live in a way that is best for our community? What is best, and who gets to decide? And while these questions have spawned a wide variety of philosophies and answers, I know that sitting and hearing adult children praise their mother’s character, selflessness, cheerfulness and nobility made me want to be more like her.
In the end, our ethic will determine just what they’ll say when those who survive us gather to sum up our lives. It’s probably best to start building a living eulogy now.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.