We all know this already, yet we think of it as bad news: We all die. The mortality rate for mankind is 100%. And yet, we don’t live as if we’re conscious of that truth. We function day-to-day as though we expect to live forever. We find it difficult to conceive of an end point. Why is that?
Perhaps we are conditioned to think of our lives as being like the stories we feed on, featuring a protagonist (one’s self) and other characters; a plot, conflict, and resolution. So we look for the story in our own lives. But we may feel as though we are ever in the opening narrative phase of the story, awaiting the remaining elements that will bring a sense of completion.
If that’s the case, perhaps we defer thoughts of our own mortality because we lapse into thinking that the story is stuck in that introductory stage, no matter how old we might be. There are conflicts, and highs and lows, but surely these are sub-plot twists and turns; minor complications. The story as a story is yet to be told. For each of us individually, it simply hasn’t come together yet; it will coalesce in time, we feel.
And time, though limited in theory, is not limited in our imaginations, because we don’t know when we will die. Although theoretically it could happen in ten minutes or in 50 years, we feel in our hearts that it happens as the culmination of a story. While we yet live, that story is assuredly not concluded. We can’t bear to think of our lives as ending like a bad novel, one that fails to deliver a satisfying denouement.
The idea of story is certainly ingrained in us. We thirst for stories — of initiative, perseverance, determination, overcoming — as our primary means of making sense of the world around us. Of our presence in it. We flock to cinemas and to libraries in search of these stories. We revel in well-told stories of conflict and resolution that grip our imagination. They grip our imagination because our imagination is built on just this structure. Story is hard-wired into us.
But what if the story of our imagination is not merely our personal life’s story? What if the story that we thirst for is not just the story of our individual deeds against adversity, but rather our part in a much grander story that is beyond our ability to fully conceive?
It could be that this hard-wired drive for story echoes a much greater story than that even of our individual, quotidian lives. Perhaps that much greater story is the one we really seek, and the endless entertainment of fictional individuals overcoming individual odds are just poor reflections of something much greater. Perhaps the ingrained Story that we seek is not just the story of our individual life, but rather a story in which our individual lives take on even more significance than we can imagine, or have imagined, countless times in books and film and song.
Instead of arranging the content of our lives linearly in the accustomed story composition, suppose we imagine just putting it all in a box. Here: this box contains all that I was. On the day I die, all the good and bad is in that box. In that box the content of my life is not constrained in linear time, as it was when I lived it, with the future shielded from my eyes and the past made dim by failing memory. Every day counts the same as every other day. God alone arranges them into a coherent whole. Maybe He is amused at our efforts while alive to do it ourselves.
The story-telling we might do with our lives is limited. There’s no point speculating on that inevitable hour when the End might come. Whenever that day comes, everything goes into the box. Life is a gift from God; the box is our gift back to Him.
And so we should number our days wisely, right? Of course. But if each day of our life counts the same as all the other days, what about those earlier misspent days? Perhaps whole years eaten by the locusts? How can I still build a life that is a complete story unto itself? To make my life as a whole have meaning?
Everything in that box is in God’s hands. We should depart this life without frustration from a sense of unfinished business, because the content of that box is part of a story much bigger than ourselves. All we can ever do is the next right thing, and have confidence in the Master story-teller.