The Jehovah’s Witnesses came by again this week…,
…right on schedule…,
…as I was sitting down to lunch.
It was the same old fellow who’s been coming by for years now, only this time he had his wife with him, which I can only remember happening once before.
We exchanged pleasantries and spoke for a few moments about work and the pleasant weather we’d been having. Then he handed me their little monthly booklet, and began to share a sampling of his particular brand of wisdom.
All while my grilled cheese slowly cooled on its plate.
My mind wandered a bit, I must admit.
Usually I do a better job of paying attention, because however else I feel about his little visits, I know that he means well and I am always interested in better understanding what other people believe. Otherwise, I’d have shooed him off long ago.
But I’d been looking forward to that sandwich all morning, and they’re never as good reheated as they are right off the skillet, and…,
…then he said something that DID catch my attention.
He said that we were “not built to die.”
In my mind I quickly rewound the last couple minutes and then skimmed it forward again, this time listening for content. He’d been speaking of the subject matter of this month’s Watchtower, having to do with how people should react when a loved-one dies. “People are always surprised by death,” he said. “And the reason for that, is that when God made us, we were immortal. Death always takes us by surprise because we were not built to die, and so we lack the programming to deal with it properly.”
When I caught back up to the present moment my visitor and his wife were already making their way back down my front walk. We’d exchanged parting pleasantries, and as usual, I’d assured him that I would consider his words carefully.
And I have at that.
“Not built to die,” he said.
I couldn’t get those words out of my head as I sat, munching on my cold sandwich.
He’s a nice enough guy, but he could not possibly be more wrong.
Living is a thing that we do in absolute defiance of the odds.
Death is not the enemy, it is hardwired into our biology.
I wonder if my door-knocking friend has ever heard of the Hayflick limit.
It turns out that the cells in our bodies can only divide themselves a set number of times. With each division, the length of a cell’s DNA is slightly shortened, and eventually, just shy of about 60-divisions, our cells can no longer reproduce and they begin to wear out and break down.
It’s a bit like that “best if used before…,” tag that we see stamped on a loaf of bread or a carton of milk. Barring accident or disease we’re fine up until that predetermined point, and then from there it is only a matter of time.
And this isn’t something that just happened to us one day.
It’s not an accident, and it’s not some ridiculous punishment for eating fruit off of the wrong tree in a magical garden somewhere.
If your belief is that we were designed, than that designer built us to die. If you don’t believe in a designer, it’s still true, because the way life evolved on this planet is that it can only exist through the action of death.
Life is precious precisely because it is temporary.
I had another unexpected visitor this week.
Just a couple days after the Jehovah’s Witnesses came by, I arrived home from work to find a screech owl sitting in the middle of my front yard.
The sun was long set, and a bird of this kind should have been on the wing, hunting for insects and the like. Instead, it sat almost motionless in the grass, hard to see in the darkness but still an easy target for neighborhood cats.
Assuming that it must be injured or sickly, I tipped an empty laundry basket over it, to keep it in place, and then, wearing thick gardening gloves, reached under the basket to collect the little creature and place him in a cardboard box, for ready delivery to another of my neighbors who does wild bird rescue and rehabilitation.
I’ve never held a screech owl in my hands.
They seem profoundly fragile things, and lifting it out from under the basket felt a bit like holding a feathered soap-bubble. I was moving quickly, so as to cause as little stress as possible, so I only caught a brief glimpse of those big yellow eyes. It made an alert sound with its beak, a bit like flicking your fingernail against a hard wood surface: tap-tap-tap. And then it was safe in a box and, I hope, off to a speedy recovery from whatever ails it.
Holding that small creature in my hands, I could feel the fragility that is life.
For an owl, a mouse, a blade of grass, or the mightiest tree.
The soul may move on to some other place.
It may even return to live again.
But immortality for this life or any other is a false hope.
We cling to life because it is temporary, because it is fragile.
Why else do we cling to each other?