While we should, like Steve Jobs, live every day like it was our last, we should never allow our lives to be defined by this 'one appalling fact'
Death is in the air. To be more specific, it is on the air waves. I turned on the car radio last week to hear a recording of a speech that the late Steve Jobs, co-founder and chief executive of the Apple empire, had made in 2005 to the students of Stanford University. In its own way it was electrifying.
Jobs said that when he was 17 he had come across the saying, “If you live each day as though it were your last, some day you will most certainly be right.” Apparently it had made a deep impression on him, leading him to ask himself every day, “If today were the last day of my life would I wish to do what I am now doing?” He went on to tell the students, “Death is the destination we all share. No-one has ever escaped it….Your time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” A difficult colleague to work with, Jobs brought an urgency and intensity to his work that clearly contributed to his success.
I don’t know what his listeners made of it. Apparently Jobs had been influenced by Eastern religions; certainly there was a Buddhist element to his thought: the endless cycle of birth and death of which humans are just a part. And his admonition, “Don’t be trapped by dogma which is living with the results of other people’s thinking” lacked a Catholic understanding of the word “dogma”. The recording made me immediately think of the (probably apocryphal) story of a former headmaster of Ampleforth who, when asked by a parent what he was preparing the boys for, answered robustly, “Death.”
Then yesterday morning on Radio 4 there was more of the Grim Reaper: an interview with the novelist Julian Barnes, who is the favourite to win this year’s Man Booker Prize. Barnes wrote in his autobiographical book, Nothing to be Frightened Of, “For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about.” Like Jobs, Barnes is very preoccupied with the subject, telling interviewer Rebecca Jones, “I don’t think we talk or think enough about death.” Describing death as “an eternity of non-existence” he concluded with a mordant half-laugh, “You are only here once.”
My Catholic ears were twitching. For Christians, death is not the point of life; it is “the life of the world to come” that we recite – often so unthinkingly – in the Creed at Mass. St Paul grasped this immediately, knowing that our faith is ‘vain’ without belief in the Resurrection. As it happened, I had a conversation about Jobs’ speech last weekend with my brother-in-law. As with his fellow-atheists, Jobs and Barnes, the finality and vastness of non-existence is troubling to him. I explained that Christians see it differently: this life is simply a preparation for the fullness of life that we hope to experience after death. He could see this might be a consoling thought, a happy illusion, but as he did not believe it he was not consoled.
I sometimes think we Christians don’t emphasise enough to our non-believing friends that the grave is not victorious and that death has no sting. We give assent to the dogma but we don’t live it in our daily lives with the heartfelt urgency that Jobs and Barnes give to thinking of death. If we did, we might possibly convert people like them, terrified of the dreariness of non-being but without hope of an alternative. After all, the atheist Edith Stein was deeply influenced by the example of a Christian friend whose husband had died in the Great War and who, despite her sorrow, was quietly convinced she would meet him again one day.