The quote in the title above is placed on the lips of Sarpedon by Homer in The Iliad (Book 12, lines 326-327, c. 800-850 B.C.E., translated by Samuel Butler, 1898). It reflects the precariousness of life in those times, but I think might be just as applicable in our age.
Comedian Jack Black has noted that “Carpe Diem” was the more original way of saying YOLO (You Only Live Once, which Drake wrote into his song “The Motto” which premiered October 31, 2011, and Zac Efron later had it tattooed on his hand). Since then, someone created a picture of the Dalai Lama laughing at the concept. But no matter what our beliefs about the afterlife, the very fact that this life is short should neither excuse shirking responsibility to prepare a better world for the future, or internally paralyze us through a fear of futility. Instead, it should actually be a motivation to both take action and live life to its fullest. While some have become nihilistic and echoed phrases such as “live hard and die young,” I believe a finite time on earth should compel us to search out a life of meaning and significance while we are here.
My first conception of death through a young couple I knew as a child, Steve and Michelle. They were already giddy in the way that young lovers are, but they had been especially joyous over their expectation of adding a child to their family. When Michelle had a miscarriage, I saw the despair and depression that overtook them and eventually ended their relationship. I did not understand much about biology at that young age, but I saw their smiles disappear, and unexpected outbursts of tears, which left me feeling powerless.
The last three years I have walked in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life as part of a team honoring Anita Atkisson, one of the best people I have ever known. Using media provided by her family, I created a simple video used as the final tribute at her memorial service. She lived her life helping others, raising her children in an exemplary way, being there when people needed her, yet never allowing them to take from her strength. I also knew a wonderful woman and R.N., Olivia Pastores, who also slowly succumb to cancer. Losing someone close slowly is agonizing, but the sudden appearance of death is just as emotionally jarring.
When I was living in Panorama City, California for a short time, I was sitting with a couple in my living room one evening and heard a loud noise outside. Dashing outside, we saw an elderly man in the empty street, everything completely still except for the small pool of blood surrounding his head and teeth scattered across the lanes (only in retrospect did we realize that these were probably dentures). The 6’ 11” man among the three of us began bawling, while his girlfriend tried to console him, and I went down the street to check on the hysterical driver and called 911. Just as surreal was when I was a teenager, seeing the grandfather I had only met three times for the last time, lying still and eerily motionless, his skin like wax paper. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing at this viewing, not being able to remember him well.
The Japanese monk who founded the Shingon or "True Word" school of Buddhism, Kūkai (also known as Kōbō-Daishi, Odaishisama, or Daishi-Henjō-Kongō), wrote, "Haven't you seen? Haven't you seen the countless people who lived in the world? The ancient sage-kings, infamous rulers, loyal ministers, and usurpers ... none of them enjoyed a life of myriad springs. All of them, lofty and humble alike, died. Dying, dying, and dying, they all returned to ashes." Death is the great equalizer. None of us can escape death. Yet in spite of that, many religions have claimed that there is more than this one life, but there is another life after death. My religious tradition has been accused of too often capitalizing on death and the fear of it by trying to convert people by asking if they know where they will spend eternity, with one of the two choices offered being an eternal and ghastly separation from God. Yet, there are myriad reasons people find that religion speaks to them, and I know that not all are simply scared into believing by threats of “turn or burn.” I know this because I have not yet had a personal fear of death. When I have been through earthquakes, had multiple guns threateningly pointed at me, and other scenarios, for some reason I have not been alarmed. When a situation is out of my control, I seem to go into a wholly analytical frame of mind, seeing nothing helpful in panicking. Life (and death) have to be accepted on their own terms. However, I suspect that this will change as I grow older and have to face my own mortality in ways that I did not when I was younger.
Then, on July 19, 2012, Claremont Lincoln University and Claremont School of Theology lost a great man when Brian Cohee, my next-door neighbor here in Graduate housing, died unexpectedly. When I was moving in, he wrote his name, phone number and email for me on a piece of paper and gave it to me, which I have on desk. I was in his apartment a few times and was able to play with his cats, but mostly we spoke to each other outside our doors as we met coming or going. He asked me questions about his New Testament class and Dr. Carleen Mandolfo’s Hebrew Bible class, borrowed books, and a few times told me that I was a smart guy. I knew this was simply Brian being modest, as he studied harder than I did and truly worked to master concepts he had never been exposed to before. Now, when I go onto my balcony, I see his old radiator on his balcony and am reminded of a sincere man, quick with a joke and a smile, who was able to outrace everyone in the pool at a Korean Student Association retreat in Palm Springs that were able to go to together.
I think memorials are more for the living than the deceased, and as sad as many as us have been, we have found comfort in each other, and in the knowledge that he died doing something that he had always loved, which was surfing. He was living his life with a definite goal, having decided what he wanted to do with his life, which was more than some of his fellow Graduate school students can say. His goal was to use his business acumen to propose to the Methodist church ways to help undergraduate students invest wisely and get scholarships so they could graduate without debt. He passed out his proposal in Dr. Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook’s class on Religious Education and emailed me a draft to look over before he did. I hope that his vision of selflessly helping others can be submitted to those in his denomination that make such decisions. Making a lasting difference in the world is what truly living is all about.