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It only seems like we live forever

Imagine that you decide to go out for dinner, and so you pull up in your car on Front Street, park it, and get out. You walk across to Port O’ Call, and you sit outside, at one of the tables next to the sidewalk. It’s a pleasant evening. You talk with your partner about what you each are going to do tomorrow, and your mutual plans to take a trip to Europe. You want to go on one of those river cruises and see the castles and old cities. You sip wine. You talk. You gaze into one another’s eyes. It’s nice.

Then, suddenly, a man walks up to you from the street, pulls out a machete and swings it on your partner’s throat. Blood splashes on the table and sprays onto you. Then, you see the man’s arm raised in your direction. You become the second victim before people subdue the man and take away his weapon. Your partner dies on the spot, and you recover in the hospital. You do not do what you had imagined you might do the next day, and you don’t go on a river cruise to see the castles in Europe.

This is similar to what happened recently in Las Vegas. Two policemen went to a pizza house to get something to eat. The police often stop at restaurants to eat while on duty. As they sat there, no doubt talking about this and that, perhaps their wives and children and what they planned on doing as families during their next vacation, a man and a woman walked up to them, shot one of them in the head, and then shot the other one, before they ran across the street to a Walmart, shot a woman dead, and then took their own lives in the back of the store.

It’s the kind of mayhem we hear about frequently now. The most common denominator across such acts of mass murder is psychological disorder. Although most people with severe psychological disorder are not dangerous, there are a few who are. There are also a few people who get pushed over the edge of their respective ideological extremes and become deluded into thinking they are ushering in the next revolution. Apparently, that is what was behind the murder of the policemen.

In all these things, though, what I am struck with is the unexpected finality of one’s last moments and how when one’s life ends, the plans one has made never lead to new experience. In the Bible Jesus chided the rich people who said they would tear down their barns and build bigger ones, supposedly to make them even more wealthy, because they were going to die and their building project would go unfinished. However, you don’t have to be a rich person to be surprised by your own mortality.

Recently a colleague of mine died from cancer. He was an esteemed professor at Loma Linda University and senior faculty at Gestalt Associates Training Los Angeles (GATLA). Every year GATLA conducts intensive training sessions somewhere in Europe, and Todd would be one of the people who would surely be there. He had influenced hundreds of young and growing gestalt therapists all over the world. About a year ago he developed cancer, and when he fought it, it looked like he was gaining ground on the disease. So, when the announcement was made that he had died, it seemed premature. The common remark was something like, “I knew he was ill, but this seems so sudden”.

In the third chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), King Solomon writes, “He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end”. Solomon is writing towards the end of his life. He has seen a lot, and for him it’s as if he has seen it all. He says that there is nothing new under the sun. Things just keep going round and round. And one of the things that makes it seem as if this might go on forever is the fact that we live in the moment, and that moment seems like an “eternal now”. God does live in an eternal now, because God lives an infinite existence. Human beings are made in the image of God, but not with the full capacities that God enjoys, because we are finite. So, it only seems like we live forever. The fact is that everyone will die, and when we die it seems like a sudden disappointment. It’s a kind of bait-and-switch. One might be a tad peeved at God for doing this, as if to say, “You put eternity in my heart so that I gave no mind to one day not being, but now the end has come and it’s all over. I don’t like that!”

Indeed. I don’t like that my brother, Tim, died suddenly in an auto accident. I don’t like that my mother died of lung cancer and my father died of congestive heart failure. I sometimes feel like there is a clock of death ticking away inside my own body. I think of slowing it all down (and living forever?) by watching what I eat, getting rest, exercising, and processing stress.

Not that I am really successful with all those things, but it’s an illusion anyway, isn’t it? I tell myself that if I make it to 80, then I will have already lived a very full life and at that point I’ll give myself permission to eat all the red meat I want, drink all the good wine I can afford, and enjoy Danish pastry with rich coffee whenever I choose not to have chocolate-mint ice cream with hot fudge. At that point I will lay around watching old movies, and every once in awhile I’ll go to the beach and sprawl almost naked in the hot sun, and I won’t bother to lather myself up with sun screen.

I fantasize doing all those things, because I know that no matter what I am going to die some day, and so I might as well enjoy the life I have to live while I’ve got the time. In fact, perhaps I should not wait until I’m 80. Who can tell when the end will