The Ultimate Joke
As others before me have said, death is the ultimate joke.  At birth, and for years afterward, we imagine we have eternity to walk, sing, and build towers of metal or of ideas. We scurry through our lives, hoping to make a difference to at least one person, to touch and be touched. We have dreams, and some of us manage to fulfill them.
Yet even fulfilled dreams are not the end. Indeed, death’s absurdity may be hardest for those who complete what they set out to accomplish, for when they reach their destination, there’s nothing left. To keep going, one must find a new goal. But what’s the point? No matter how many homes, gardens, poems, or quilts we create, they don’t last. Our monuments erode in sun. Tragedies and horrors plague us; surprises interrupt us. We cook and clean and bandage skinned knees, and then we die. Yet in spite of all this, we plan, and in spite of it all, God laughs.
Dying Before We’re Ready
I think about a colleague who died suddenly. She had taken on the leadership of a project she was passionate about. It had to do with celebrating diversity. She envisioned it changing hearts and minds. Yet it was not a venture of her own devising, so she took it on reluctantly.
“I want to be done by the end of the year,” she informed the council who had sought her help. “I have so many things of my own I want to accomplish.”
Before she could pursue any of those personal dreams, though, she died.
How can that not be a joke? We think that when we retire, or our children leave home, or our husband doesn’t need us, or we win the lottery, or there’s peace in the land, then we can focus on our own projects. Yet before we get to play or create or rest, we die. My father died shortly after he retired, and he is not the only man to have done so.
For many people, though, the joke is even harsher. Not everyone has the option of laying down their burden and seeking fulfillment in undertakings of their own, for some people can do no more than survive. Even if they would be happy to quit their job and dance, they never get the opportunity.
Those of us who have the resources to follow our dreams don’t do so because we’re afraid we’ll fail. Alternately, we worry about success and the burdens that brings. Maybe we lust for applause, for gilt and gold and the latest gadget. But such things never satisfy, yet we refuse to admit what would soothe that endless craving. We refuse to admit that we are empty of love. In that refusal lies the joke.
God Also Cries
So God laughs, but She also cries. Our addiction to objects and power and titillation causes us to destroy ourselves, one another, and the world. God wants us to choose life, yet over and over, we choose death. When will we learn that our lust is a travesty?
Yet not everyone’s dreams revolve around a superficial happiness. My colleague wanted to make the world a kinder place. In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer talks about the importance of living an “undivided life.”  By this he means to live true to our best selves, to follow our passions, to make a positive difference in the world around us. He means we should strive to become whole. Maybe we won’t finish what we start. Maybe everything we build will crumble. Death may be the ultimate joke. But is that so bad?
If we can’t see the foolishness of making plans and scurrying around to fulfill them, if we can’t laugh at ourselves, we will get lost in anger and self-righteousness. Then, we will tear down whatever we touch, destroying it before its time.
Living According to Life-Giving Values
My colleague might not have finished things she longed to do. Some of them she didn’t start. But she accomplished much. She wrote reports and nurtured friends and created beauty. This mattered to her and to her friends. In doing what she felt called to, she helped heal the world. Living according to values that encouraged life and love, she inspired many.
Sometimes doing so takes sacrifice. Parents, for instance, deny their own desires so they can raise children to be decent human beings. This doesn’t always work out the way we expect. Sometimes our kids don’t become the people we think they should. At times, they die before they grow up. Maybe the parents die before they have a change to travel or sing karaoke or play golf or whatever they thought they’d do when they finally had the time.
That that doesn’t negate the value of what they did for their offspring or for society. We live the undivided life not to make money or finish building a cathedral, but to feel the peace that comes when we have done something that matters. When we strive for justice and freedom and truth, when we care for and nurture, we know joy, and that matters.
The Specter of Death
Even so, we can’t do everything. When we pursue projects or dreams, there are things we don’t attend to. Some executives and artists neglected families, for instance. I read that when the author, Terry Pratchett, discovered he had cancer, he stopped keeping chickens and let his garden run wild. All his time and energy was spent writing. Even so, he barely managed to finish the first draft of his final book, The Shepherd’s Crown, so it is a bit rough in places, yet in the story he manages to say something meaningful about death and the continuation of life after we’re gone. The novel is sad and funny, which is how life is. 
Like my colleague, Pratchett lived an undivided life. He wrote about important things like hope, growth, tenderness, generosity, death, love. I would enjoy reading more from him. Yet at some point, we no longer have the option of more. Perhaps the joke isn’t so much that death takes us in the middle of our plans, but that we expect it to be any different.
No matter how much passion we have, how many books or projects or family gatherings we plot or lay out or calendar, it’s not enough. All the longing in the world is not enough to keep death at bay. If we believe in heaven or alternate universes, we can console ourselves with the vision of a Terry Pratchett feverishly scribbling new stories, or a minister building a nonprofit or writing blog posts or knitting rainbow scarves, or a loved one traipsing through a field of flowers.
And maybe that’s how it goes. Maybe we have an eternity in which to do everything we could possibly conceive of. I suspect, though, that God wants us to recognize that our time is limited. God wants us to find our calling and live undivided lives.
Even more, though, I think God wants us to understand that while all of it matters desperately, none of it matters at all. We make plans, we dream, we build, and we destroy, and it all shatters to dust in the end.
In one way or another, we all try to influence the trajectory of time and events, yet how can we judge what makes a difference and what doesn’t? We all impact our environment a little. Do we need to do something grand and masterful to feel fulfilled? Can we not just tend our gardens and care for our children and feed the homeless? Must we write novels, start movements, fight Neo-Nazis? How do we decide what makes a life undivided? When we live in a country where the rule of law is being undercut by our own government, we can be forgiven for feeling powerless and depressed.
Yet God’s propensity for laughter has nothing to do with hopelessness. If the end is dust, the present moment is even more precious. Right now, we have this life. It is not meant to be consumed or attacked, but to be cherished, to be treated with care and gentleness.
Life Is a Gift
Life is a gift. Let’s not spend it wrapping ourselves in the cacophony of a decadent culture, believing the lies of insidious advertisers and lustful politicians. Let’s spend our life listening to that quiet voice within that reminds us of what is sacred and holy, that speaks to us of the satisfaction of living out of wholeness, that inspires us to follow the call, not of greed, but of love.
Like Martin Luther King, Jr., we will not reach the mountaintop. We will die first. And that’s okay, whether death is the ultimate joke or not. We may console ourselves with the thought that a new generation of children will grow up and take over where we left off, but one day there won’t be a next generation to whom we can hand the baton. That’s okay, too, for we have this moment. We have today. And maybe, if there really is a God who laughs while She cries, then when the stars have turned to dust, there will not be nothing. There will remain the echo of God’s laughter.
In faith and fondness,
- See, for example, Smith, Donald E., The Hopeful Agnostic: What I Believe – I Guess, Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2012, 50 or penneloppe, “Ruth Rendell” – ‘The Dreadful Day of Judgment’: When Place and Character Intersect,” poettreeyr, February 11, 2018, accessed 9/28/19 or OffSheGoes35 in a post March 2018 in a string titled “If you only had access to these genre of books, which would you choose?,” Pearl Jam, https://community.pearljam.com/discussion/270265/if-you-only-had-access-to-one-of-these-genres-of-books-which-would-you-choose/p2 , accessed 9/28/19, and the response by brianlux who told a story of one of his teachers who came to class one day and wrote “Death is the ultimate” on the blackboard.
- Palmer, Parker, A Hidden Wholeness, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.
- Pratchett, Terry, The Shepherd’s Crown, New York: HarperCollins, 2016.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved