The motivation of death.

24 Aug

Justin-JohnsonBefore my son died, I had attended exactly four funerals: three were elderly grandparents, and one was a family friend who had fought a long battle with disease. Julian’s Celebration of Life was funeral number five. And last week, I attended funeral number six.

On August 13, 2014, a young father of four died in a car accident. His children attend my ten-year-old’s school, and our whole community was devastated. Almost immediately, a parent task force sprang into action to support the Johnson family.

Everyone was encouraged to attend the funeral, but my immediate response to that request was NO WAY. I told myself, everyone will understand. As if the death of my son excused me from supporting others in their grief.

What I didn’t anticipate is that my 10YO son absolutely, positively wanted to go to the funeral. “Are you sure?” I kept asking him. “It will probably bring up some painful memories for you,” I warned.

“Mom, I want to support my friends. They just lost their dad. And I know what it feels like to lose someone you love so much,” he said. Of course my son would have this perspective. For him, his own potential for pain was irrelevant compared to the potential to help others.

Still, the voice in my head said, I’m just not ready. But then, I realized the meaninglessness of that thought. Is anyone ever really “ready” to attend a funeral? No. Definitely not. So last Thursday, my son and I entered the packed church to support the Johnson family — and stare death in the face for the first time in three and a half years.

There were some painful moments, for sure. I remembered what it felt like to sit in that front row. I imagined the journey that the members of the Johnson family are just beginning. I wondered how I had forgotten to put tissues in my purse.

But more importantly, I marveled at the strength of the human spirit. We experience profound pain, and then… life goes on. Most of us, at our core, are resilient. Life is not supposed to be easy. In fact, I believe, it is supposed to be hard. This is Earth School, after all. Our souls are here to learn.

The funeral experience last Thursday — the opportunity to stare death in the face again — reminded me of the central theme of this blog that I started more than three years ago: When we are faced with tragedy, what do we choose to do? Do we shut down, close up, turn off? Or do we live bigger, love harder, create more?

In a beautiful short film called Existential Bummer, filmmaker Jason Silva observes that sometimes love makes us simultaneously happy *and* melancholy, nostalgic for what we have yet to lose. I think the same concept is reversely true of death: it can make us sad *and* inspired, motivated to maximize our life:

(apologies in advance for the advertisement you might see before the film starts)

Death challenges us, reminding us that entropy is inevitable. Death asks, what will you do NOW? I, for one, agree with Jason Silva when he suggests that we must use entropy to motivate us to extend every moment forever (or at least try):

“Perhaps the biggest existential bummer of all is entropy…. Sometimes I feel nostalgic over something I haven’t lost yet, because I see its transience.

And so how does one respond to this? Do we love harder? Do we squeeze tighter? Or do we embrace to the Buddhist creed of no attachment? Do we pretend not to care that everything and everyone we know is going to be take away from us?

I don’t know if I can accept that. I think I more side with the Dylan Thomas quote that says, ‘I will not go quietly into that good night, but instead rage against the dying of the light.’

I think that we defy entropy and impermanence with our films and our poems. I think we hold onto each other a little harder and say, ‘I will NOT let go. I do NOT accept the ephemeral nature of this moment. I’m going to extend it forever… or at least I’m going to try.'”

It is impossible to avoid tragedy in our lives. No amount of precaution, protection, or prayer will stop death from coming for us and our loved ones when our time is up. But until then, we can make a choice to attend that funeral, to feel that pain, to see the entropy all around us… and be MOTIVATED by it. 

That is my wish for myself, for the Johnson family, and for all humankind studying bravely in this Earth School.


Posted by on August 24, 2014 in year 4


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4 responses to “The motivation of death.

  1. Anonymous

    August 24, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Emily…Being your DAD, and knowing about the Johnson family tragedy, I was curious and concerned about how you, Oscar and John would respond.

    Like you, I am proud of Oscar’s willingness to enter this painful domain from a bravery and helpfulness perspective.

    And while I am not surprised, I applaud your introspective, sensitive and profound reminder how one’s mindset, even in the most difficult situations, can help lead us to learn and grow from the tearful lessons Earth School provides.

    Love, DAD

  2. Karen

    August 24, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    As usual, beautiful spoken words of deep truth.

  3. fhundt

    August 24, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    Thanks for a heartfelt and moving post. I have been that Dad in the front row and I didn’t know how I would go on…but life grows around our loss. I am always in awe of human resilience in the face of tragedy and the most horrific experiences.

    I was troubled for many years by the concept of entropy. I have come to know that the opposite of entropy is creativity. We live in a ceaselessly creative universe, where order appears out of chaos in increasingly complex and beautiful ways.

  4. Anonymous

    October 15, 2016 at 4:14 am

    Great post and I can so identify. My boy, Stefan passed away after a short battle with cancer about a month before his 21st birthday 5/5/15. The diagnosis was sudden, and about 8 months later, he was in a box ready for cremation. And I am so very very sorry for your loss too!
    Scientists have tried for centuries to answer the questions…Where do we come from?…Why are we here?…and Where to after death?…and have been pretty much unsuccessful. This is how I see it…We can believe there is no God, but then go crazy with all these unanswered questions…or we can believe there is a God, that He is in control, He knows what He is doing and nothing that happens to us catches Him by surprise.
    It probably is obvious that I have chosen the latter…and this choice has brought such amazing peace…a peace that changes everything…and a hope that my boy lives!
    Now I am quite aware that I might be oversimplifying things and I might very well be wrong…I certainly have nothing to lose…but what if I’m not?


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