There is an irony present in our society that absolutely baffles me. On the one hand, we fear death above most everything else. We use euphemisms, distractions, and straight-up denial to protect ourselves from the reality that each of us will one day die. We try to convince ourselves that we are safe and that death is something we do not have to deal with. But on the other hand, we are constantly bombarded by the seeming omnipresence of death in our lives. News media, entertainment, and life itself seem to be intent on forcing us to deal with death head-on. No matter how hard we try to shield ourselves from death, we are reminded all the time that it is real, and that every living thing is headed in that direction.
Lately, it seems that this paradox has come to the forefront in our society. Through a combination of different issues, America today more than ever is being forced to face the reality of death and to decide how we are going to deal with this reality. It seems that our vain attempts at avoiding the subject have finally, utterly failed, and our living rooms, classrooms, sanctuaries, offices, and storefronts (not to mention digital spaces like social media) are now filled with conversations about death. Since this is such a huge issue right now and it is a matter of such great importance, I thought I might contribute my voice to the conversation, not only to help me think through these issues but to share what I think with others in hopes that my reflections may be helpful to someone else.
Even more confusing and troublesome to me than the paradox mentioned above is the utter hypocricy that we employ when trying to appropriately deal with death when it confronts us. I'd like to note that I'm not talking about reactions of individual people to deaths of friends or loved ones, but rather reactions by our society as a whole in response to deaths that make national news headlines. Namely, we try to respond to and minimize death by creating more death.
Think about it. When terrorists come to our country and kill American citizens, we respond by waging wars against entire nations in an attempt to kill potential terrorists before they get a chance to kill us. When a person commits murder, the reaction of the so-called American justice system is to condemn the murderer to death. And when a developing child threatens the life or quality of life of the mother, we terminate the child, donate the body to science in an attempt to find new ways to combat death, and accept money to compensate for "shipping and storage." This is how we as a society react to death: by creating more death. We're fighting fire with fire and hoping that this will in some way put the fire out.
But here's the reality of the situation: Death will never defeat death. And trying to combat death with more death results in simply that: more death. This is not only illogical; it is unacceptable.
We will never be able to confront and respond to death in a healthy way until we first recognize and appreciate the true value of life. I recently came across a term called sonder, and it is one that has become very impactful for me. It refers to the recognition that every other person on the planet has a life just as vivid, complex, and meaningful as one's own. I believe this is the key to understanding the value of life and the first step to appropriately responding to death. If we could see that every person we meet and every person we see has a life that is just as important and central to them as ours is to us, then maybe we could start to see what a tragedy a life cut short truly is.
I'm not saying this is easy, or even that I've truly grasped this concept as well as I should. There are over seven billion people on this planet, and that number alone is difficult enough for the human brain to comprehend. Trying to take the complexity of one's life and multiply it by a number that large is nearly impossible for one to do. But you don't have to try to start that big. Start small. Start with the person you are closest to, maybe your significant other or best friend. Think about how that person perceives life and realize that to them, their life is as central and important as yours is to you. Once you can grasp that, widen the view a little bit. Keep expanding until you can include all the people you like, and then expand even more into people you are neutral toward, and eventually to people you even dislike. Each time you take this step of expanding, you will start to see that the people around you matter just as much as you do, and you'll be well on your way to understanding the value of human life. You might even one day be able to live out Jesus' call to love your enemies (which, obviously, means you aren't going to kill them).
Because the truth is that other people are people too. Your best friend is a person just as much as you are. Your family members, friends, and peers are people just as much as you are. The person you pass on the street is a person just as much as you are. The person you buy your groceries from is a person just as much as you are. Your worst enemy is a person just as much as you are. And as hard as it is to admit, even a terrorist or a murderer is a person—just as much as you are.
In order to live ethical lives and bring about justice in our world, we must understand this basic truth. Other people are still people, even though they are not us. Each person's life matters. Each person's life is precious. Each person's life is a sacred, God-given gift that no one else has the right to take away from them. No person or entity has the right to take another person's life under any circumstances. Period. Life is just too precious for that.
I understand that this may seem extreme. And I understand that one may be able to come up to exceptions to the rule I've put forth. I recognize that there is such a thing as necessary evil and that death cannot be avoided. However, I would urge each of you to truly, prayerfully consider the value of a human life before you ever even start to decide to condone the taking of one. Because life is precious. It is sacred. And as we consider current issues such as the death penalty, war, abortion, and others, we must remember just how precious life is.