The First Last Word
Each new year we are urged to think about life, to make resolutions to improve our bodies and our minds. That’s fine, as far as it goes — though I can’t think of the last resolution I faithfully kept! But what if, instead of resolving to live a better life this year, we were to set our sights on a better death? “That man lives badly who does not know how to die well,” declared first-century Roman philosopher Seneca. The manner of our death, and how we prepared for it, often speaks loudly to how we lived.
Contemplating death also focuses the mind in a manner different from bemoaning our waistline or the hours we wasted in front of a screen. This new year, I’d sure like to lose ten pounds or be more efficient with my time, but I certainly don’t want to die alone and forgotten or, worse, despised. And I’d like Extreme Unction performed as close as possible to my final hour. That sentiment is, after all, implied in one of the most popular of Catholic prayers: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
We don’t think about death nearly as much as we should. Perhaps we find it too morbid. Consider the signs suggesting our aversion to contemplating our own death. The U.S. birthrate in 2020 was 1.64 children per woman, the lowest recorded level in our nation’s history. “[It’s] about women having access to education and employment opportunities. It’s about the rise in individualism. It’s about the rise in women’s autonomy and a change in values,” Christine Percheski, associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University, told Business Insider (Jan. 2022). Yet if you don’t have children, who will care for you in your final years and be present at your bedside in your final hours? Your former coworkers? Your old boss? A distant relative?
“A nation that kills its own children has no future,” observed Pope St. John Paul II. How about a nation that doesn’t even have children? This lack of progeny is just one aspect of our aversion to contemplating our own deaths. If it were otherwise, would Americans have spent a daily average of two and a half hours on social media in 2022, or three hours per day watching television? We have become a people expert in the art of distraction, ever resisting that nagging voice in the back of our mind that warns: this isn’t going to last forever.
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