Several years ago, Yale philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff, wrote a book entitled, Lament for a Son. It’s a chronicle of his struggles to come to grips with the death of his 25 year old son, Eric, who died in a mountain climbing accident.
His approach is like Job’s. He keeps asking: “Why? Why was a young person with such potential so tragically struck down? How does one make sense of a life that ends before it’s given a chance to really achieve anything?”
Assessing Eric’s untimely death, he comments: “His project was never finished. His notes lie mute in boxes. … Does that matter? Most human beings do not contribute to the cultural deposit of humanity. They live out lives of routine as farmers, as housewives, as factory workers, as husbands, as mothers, as fathers; after two or three generations the earth knows of them no more. Others make creative additions to culture, things that get passed on through time. Would Eric’s project have been such an addition? I do not know. Does it matter? Is his death to be lamented more than the death of another twenty five year old who spent his life in routine but through that routine loved those he knew, trusted God, and cherished the earth? What is it that we carry into God’s abiding kingdom? Is it only love and faith and trust? Or is it culture too? I lament all that might have been, and now well never be.” (Lament for a Son, pp. 21-22)
Wolterstorff makes this lament in the face of the death of his young son. But death takes many forms and, when our youthful day dreams die, we also ask the question: “Does it matter?”
Does it matter that, for virtually all of us, our notes written and unwritten, will lie mute in boxes? Does it matter that our life stories, with all their unique and precious insights, will not interest anyone, nor indeed even be known, after we die? Does it matter that, as Thoreau says, when we reach middle age we are forced into the kind of realism that salvages a woodshed from the materials we once gathered in hopes of building a bridge to the moon, or a palace or a temple?
These are painful questions and we do not do anyone a favour if we simplistically dismiss them with the suggestion that they should not arise in someone who prays and is humble. To fear living and dying in obscurity is not a sign of megalomania. The longing to leave a mark, to be significant, to have everyone in the whole world, now and in the future, know and appreciate us, is part of the ache for immortality. That ache, whether we admit it or not, is the drive behind much of what we do.
It’s also behind a lot of our restlessness. Socrates once said that we come into life possessed by a divine madness which pushes us to try to recover wholeness by embracing another, by trying to perpetuate our seed, and by trying to get others to remember our deeds. Plato and Aquinas agreed. Popular philosophies of self-development, despite their habitually excessive narcissistic quality, say the same thing. They tell us that something inside of us needs “to plant a tree, have a child and write a book!”
But we don’t need anyone to tell us this. The ache for immortality is part of our hard wiring, an instinct nearly synonymous with our drive for life itself. We are compulsively driven to leave something behind which will tell future generations that we were significant. Only in a true saint, in someone whose faith in God is so strong that he or she knows and trusts that the only mark (whether one is speaking of love or cultural achievement) which truly remains is the hidden mark one makes in the body of Christ, is this ache transformed so that it no longer restlessly haunts our every action. Those of us who aren’t saints play out and act out the same familiar tapes and scripts. We compulsively plant trees, have children, and write books because we are in the business of trying to make some immortality for ourselves.
When Christ says: “Come to me all you who labour and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest,” the rest of which he speaks is not a rest that we can give ourselves through a good night’s sleep or a good vacation. It’s a much deep rest, a rest for the soul, a rest from all the compulsive restlessness that emanates from our congenital propensity to achieve that special something that would forever leave a mark.