The first lines of the famous poem by John Donne seemed to haunt me as I read the final testaments—one of them even recorded on voice mail—of men about to die at the World Trade Center or in the skies above New York and Pennsylvania.
The professions of love for spouse and family felt not so much like the commonplace that some warm people are often given to say or the panicked are rushed to include at hurried moments. These words seemed more like a final strike at fate, a trumping of the death card dealt, a summing up of lives that would live beyond allotted time.
What is the relationship between this life and the next? How is our behavior, how are our choices, how does the life one lives affect one’s destiny?
By one account, our ethical or moral choices have nothing to do with eternity, for there is no eternity. There is only the now, heaven and hell being invented by people who need the crutch to lean on or the cane to fear as punishment. This has led some to be “naturalistic humanists,” boldly committed to the betterment of the earth but often disillusioned, as Bertrand Russell was, in the face of extinction. Others, I think more honestly, have come to the ethically nihilistic conviction that since nothing really lasts, nothing really matters.
For those who do believe in an afterlife, there seems to be, as well, two ways to approach it. The first portrays the “next world” as being so unlike “this” world that a rejection of this world is the best way to insure happiness in the next. One wise old wag called this the “it’s hell all the way to heaven and heaven all the way to hell” theory. Be miserable and unfulfilled now, and get your reward later. Have a good time now and pay painfully in eternity.
The second approach takes the opposite tack. It goes like this. If we really knew what was important, if we truly understood what happiness is, we would, no matter what our place or station, slowly learn to embrace what matters in this life so that when we die our arms would be open to all the truth there is to know and all the good there is to love. By this account, if we get things right, it’s a little bit of heaven all the way to heaven. I think this is the correct take on things. Experientially at least, the happiest people (although not those having the most fun, to be sure) I have ever met are the holiest.
Aside from considerations of unmerited grace, which might rescue us from our direst acts, our choices are the prime indicators of our destiny. Behavior matters—not because we are punished by a God eager for retribution, but because we actually become, eternally, what we have given ourselves to.
And that is why those last messages seemed such a triumph—not in terms of this life, which was disastrously ending, but as a triumph over death. What greater way to disarm death than to utter the word of love in its face? Love is the exercise of our most godly and greatest gift, our ability to say yes, to affirm the other, which no one else can do for us but which each of us, from our earliest stirring, is empowered to do. As those men died, so they are indelibly are.
Love, ultimately, is the foundation of every choice, even our bad ones. As Dante told it (echoing Aquinas), misdirected or fearful or excessive loves can bode a terrible fate. But love purified and authentic is joy, here and hereafter. The purification is not easy. It may require the terrible focusing moment of impending disaster to shake us into the realization of what really counts, what truly is important. It may demand the harsh and dreadful path that Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima predicts in The Brothers Karamazov. It may be the daily refining of the virtues that St. Paul celebrates in his First Letter to the Corinthians. But it is love, grounded in the truth, that we are made for and love which is eternally of God.
John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” is central to the recent brilliant HBO film “Wit,” directed by Mike Nichols. In the Margaret Edson script, Emma Thompson plays a university professor specializing in the metaphysical poets, especially Donne. Facing her own death from ovarian cancer and devastating rounds of chemotherapy, Thompson is led not only to recognize the absence of love in her past life and the lives of the physicians and researchers around her, but to discover love’s presence in her nurse and her former, now-aging teacher. The sum of her life is not her scholarly achievements or even the circumstances of mindless therapies and heartless attempts at resuscitation, but in the love she could finally give and, more important, evoke from others.
In the end, our choices, our behaviors and the actions of others toward us make all the difference, whether we are a money marketer, a teacher, a nurse or a pitiful patient. Emma Thompson’s character in “Wit” and the last minute messengers of love have come to the same liberating truth.
At last, only three things last. And the greatest is Love.