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How Reflecting on Death Can Bring Life

Although few of us knew him personally, the hearts of millions of Americans were broken last night with the news of Robin Williams’ death. From “Hook” to “Patch Adams” to “Mrs. Doubtfire,” his remarkable acting inspired us and touched our hearts. Through his movies, we did come to know him in a way, and his passing—like the deaths of all we hold dear—feels unnatural.

Death is unnatural. It is an awful phenomenon that wasn’t meant to be. It makes sense then, that it’s a topic that we usually try to avoid—until times like these, when it is impossible. When someone that we love passes away, we can’t help but look death straight in its ugly face. It’s painful and miserable. It seems so unfair. We cry, “Why does this have to be?” And yet, something good comes of this struggle.

For a short time, we take life extremely seriously. We deeply appreciate the good and mourn the bad. We focus on what is most important in life, especially our closest relationships.

“True life might be brought by thinking about death.”

One of my favorite authors, Flannery O’Connor, wrote stories that were full of death—and for good reason. Its presence has a remarkable effect on those tales. Death makes everything appear more real, both the beautiful and the grotesque. In light of life’s terrifying fragility, reality becomes heavy with meaning and importance. Faced with the fleeting nature of life, we inevitably live more purposefully and intentionally. We invest in the things that we truly care about and make the choices that we know deep down are good.

Isn’t that the way it always should be?

Still, it is much easier to distract ourselves from death. Doing so allows us to lazily live in ways that are comfortable and pleasing to us. We take our attention away from the brokenness of the world, and become disengaged. It is much easier to live that way. It’s more fun and care-free.

But that simply isn’t the way to a fulfilled life.

Social science seems to agree. One study led by Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri shows that occasional reminders of death can lead to better health and more virtuous behavior. The authors write, “The dance with death can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good life.”

This is obviously different from unhealthy depression or preoccupation with death. It is critical to not turn a blind eye to death, but we also must have hope. As Christians, we know that death has ultimately been defeated, but we still wait anxiously for a time when no more traces of it exist.

Until then, even though it is uncomfortable, it would do us good to reflect on death more often. Ironically, true life might be brought by thinking about death.

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