Friday, August 28, 2015
Recently I read Marina Keegan’s now-famous essay for the Yale Daily News, “The Opposite of Loneliness.”
It is famous because it’s a lovely piece. Written in 2012 in the week of Keegan's graduation from college, it embodies the tension, uncertainty, and lip-biting optimism of this season. It suggests a woman moving forward from the collegiate cocoon into the realities of the adult world. It is honest, idealistic, joyful, frightened, hopeful.
It is also famous because Marina Keegan died in a car accident just days after her graduation.
As I read it, I – like everyone else who reads the essay knowing the story – couldn’t help but delight at the beauty of her hope, and grieve at the poignancy of it. Here is a young woman who stands looking out at what she sees as the beginning of her adult life. She marvels at it. She shrinks away from the unknowns. Then she runs boldly towards them all. She says, “We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time.”
Only – she didn’t.
And that is one scary thing about death. We like to think of it as something having a proper time and a place. The time is far into the future, and the place is at the end of a full life: a gentle, welcome conclusion to a life well-lived. But death is not so tidy. It likes to sneak up on us at odd moments, and that is scary.
Another scary thing about death is that it closes the book. And wherever we were up to in our writing – even there at the half-finished sentence, the misspelt word, the angry exclamation – is where the book is done. Or undone, as the case may be.
That’s why, in Marina Keegan’s story, although there is a sense of deep sorrow at a bright young life being seemingly cut short, there is also a sense of triumph: the story ends on a rich, meaningful note, one that will have echoes far into the future. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s a great ending. Marina Keegan left her mark on the world, and it is a good mark.
Sometimes, when I’ve had a particularly lame day, overthought everything, talked too much, accidentally been a jerk to the people I love the most, and wrestled with creative paralysis, I worry that I might die in the night and the only legacy I’ll have left behind is a bad taste in people’s mouths.
I don’t think I’m alone in that. Even for those of us who believe there is life after life, we are not so much scared of death (although it can be frightening, because it is strange to us); we are scared of having not really lived. We are scared that we will not do what we were meant to do with this “one wild and precious life.” And all the unfinished projects, the untouched possibilities, the wide open relationships, the people we love the most that we haven’t loved the most – all of them are a hundred tiny swords of Damocles, suspended over our lives and ready to come crashing down at our failures.
People like Marina Keegan empower us, and they terrify us. We hope we will end well, but we can’t be sure we will. One of the gentlest men I have known once told me, “I worry that my time will be up just as I’m snapping angrily at my wife.” Even he was not immune. It seems that none of us want to be caught in the messiness of a first draft.
That’s why it’s freeing – achingly, beautifully freeing – to consider that our legacy, whether it’s a whisper or a shout, is not only about how well we lived. It’s also about how well we were loved. A life well-loved is a life well-lived. That is a rich life, and a full life. If there is one person who loves you, then you exist, you are valued, your very being is important.
Within the Christian worldview, this understanding goes even deeper. To be loved in many cases means to be lovely. To have friends requires us to be friendly. And there are days when we are not lovely. There are days where we are not friendly. There are days when we are abandoned and alone. This is, after all, the essence of the fear.
What then? What of those times? The Christian message, the message of the gospel, is for those very times. At the bleakest, at the blackest, at the most unlovely: still loved, still beloved.
The horse hairs snap, the tiny swords fall, and He is there catching them all in his bare hands, heedless of the pain and of the blood that flows from the wounds.
This is not permission for any of us to embrace the jerkdom that either hibernates within us or openly roams free. It is not permission to waste our lives; love compels us to live better lives. But it is permission to look ahead with hope and to silence the voice that tells us we must do something important in order to be important.
You may have sixty years left or you may have six. In every one of them: be loved, because you are beloved. That is the opposite of dying.