I have been reading Rob Moll’s excellent Intervarsity Press book The Art of Dying. One of Moll’s key points is that we know we will die and in order to do so well, we need to have thought about it ahead of time. He doesn’t mean that we should obsess about death, sleep in caskets, or wear black all the time like a disturbed woman I saw on a television program. Instead, he encourages us to think about what it means to have a good death. While we are removed from the immediate danger, take advantage of the calm to consider how we should die and how we should make decisions about dying.
As I thought more about it, I realized that Moll’s insight about death has a lot to do with both moral and political thinking generally. One of the great reasons to draw up a constitution, for example, is to try to set up rules ahead of time. We need to have considered the possible situations for which law will be needed and to propose them now before they happen and we are caught up with either interestedness or our passions.
Bringing the example closer to home, I think about something I wrote several years go in response to a mass shooting incident at Virginia Tech:
I remember going for an evening walk with my young wife some years ago. As we strolled past a heavily wooded yard with a house barely visible, I suddenly heard the menacing growl of a very obviously big and mean dog. My immediate reaction was to run. The big muscles in my legs flexed and fired. The only thing that stopped me was my wife’s anguished cry, “Hunter, don’t leave me!” I forced down the fear impulse, backed up and put myself between her and the threatening sound. We walked on and nothing happened.
When Professor Librescu, an old man, a septuagenarian whose body had been through the terrors of the Holocaust, spotted a terrible threat he pushed his weight against a door and tried to keep a killer from murdering his students. All but two of the students and Librescu got away. In an email exchange yesterday, a friend wondered why able-bodied young men would have chosen to run instead of coming to the assistance of their heroic professor.
Thinking of my own experience and looking at what happened in that besieged classroom in Virginia, I think I know the answer. Liviu Librescu had seen death up close much earlier in life. He very probably saw his friends and neighbors killed and had many opportunities to measure his own reactions in light of right and wrong, valor and heroism. It is no surprise to me that such a man would resist rather than run. I suggest to you that he knew exactly who he was and who he was determined to be. The young men in that classroom were probably a lot like me in the situation with the dog. They were untested and had probably never been in serious physical danger. More important, they had probably never stopped to consider what they would expect of themselves in a life and death situation.
There are a couple of lessons that come to mind. The one that many conservatives will point to is that we have a culture that does not successfully impute manliness. We already knew the ethic of dedication to wife and children had slipped badly. We knew less well that we weren’t raising boys with expectations of self-sacrifice and protectiveness toward others. But this is the smaller of the two lessons.
The greater lesson is that we should all take pains to reflect on who we want to be and what we really believe. It was once common to speak of the examined life. That phrase fell under the massive heap of self-help materials and endless reflection on why we don’t have a better sex life, more money, and a better job. But the examined life goes deeper than that. It comes down to knowing who you are. Without it, you will almost inevitably run in the face of danger, quail before the bully, and excel in self-justification after the fact rather than action in the relevant frame.
Unprepared and without prior thought, none of us know how we will react in these situations. But we can prepare ourselves for the event and drastically increase the chance that we WILL do what we merely hope we would.
Take Rob Moll’s advice with regard to death and many other important moments in life. Prepare yourselves, friends.