Life through death


Ever since high school, one of the best parts of my day has been when unconnected classes and occurrences coincidentally cover similar concepts within the same time frame. Though I now forget the details, I have fond memories of a moment last semester when, after an afternoon rosary at the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I excitedly waylaid one of my departing friends to explain a similarity between an early Mesopotamian text we read in Understanding the Bible and a phrase I’d noticed in the Iliad. Recently, this happened again when, within 48 hours, both my Lit Trad and philosophy classes discussed the definition of wrongdoing as when reason is subjected to desire.

My favorite example of this phenomenon, however, is not one moment, but a series of events which stretched across all of last semester, when the various paint strokes of the Lit Trad readings, the drama department’s fall Mainstage, a dead animal in the road, a poem, assorted reckless drivers, and the weather all came together to form a sweeping portrait of the brevity of life, the impending fate of death, and the futility of human accomplishments. 

In the Odyssey, when Odysseus meets Achilles in the underworld, Achilles says he would rather be the poorest man alive than king over all the dead. The drama department’s fall Mainstage production of Orphée also illustrated this idea of the afterlife as empty and meaningless. In a chilling moment after his death, Orphée kneels blindly in the dark, calling out for help without answer, abandoned in the cold, never-ending stillness of death. To the audience’s relief, Eurydice comes to him and the play ends more or less happily, but those shiver-inducing moments of Orphée’s experience keenly portray the acute emptiness of death from a non-Christian perspective, causing one to wonder; If death has no meaning, then what is the purpose of life?

The choice that the heroes of the Iliad consistently make, a choice in favor of glorious death over long life in safety, provides one answer to this interesting consideration. If the immortality of the afterlife is empty and meaningless, as it was for the Greeks and Orphée, then ensuring that one’s memory lives on is essential. However, as I was reading through a poetry collection one evening, I came across “Ozymandias” by Percy Shelley, which paints a poignant image of the indurability of human accomplishments. In the poem, the narrator tells of a fallen statue in the desert with an inscription commanding the viewer to look with awe upon the great works of King Ozymandias. Of the aforementioned great works, however, only the broken statue remains, surrounded by empty horizons and level desert sands. If both human life and human accomplishments are fleeting, how do we come to terms with our own transience?

As someone who currently commutes to campus, I regularly witness many ways not to drive. While being cut off by yet another impatient sports car can be terrifying, its very terrifyingness is a disguised blessing in the form of “memento mori.” Another unglamorous aspect of my drive is passing occasional roadkill. Though typically roadkill is not something to attract my purposeful attention, I remember a vivid moment when I passed a cat which had recently been hit, its mouth still open in its death-yowl. The sight of that cat, seemingly frozen in its moment of death, added to my reflections on the fleetingness of life.

Finally, as the fall semester came to a close, autumn showed her full force, sweeping her blazing train across the treetops. As I paged through the leaves of my notebooks in preparation for finals, the leaves of the trees fell to the ground, giving me ample material for reflection during my study breaks and long drives. While reflecting on the passing of autumn as a poignant image of death, I also remembered that after winter comes spring and the promise of resurrection. We can come to terms with our own mortality because as Christians we know the paradoxical secret about death which the Greeks did not; that only through death can we achieve eternal life.


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