I was surprised this morning in watching last night’s Rachel Maddow Show to learn that Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, had died.  I had a clue yesterday when I noticed some testimonials about Mr. Jobs on the Internet — I thought it odd that there were testimonials about him, and figured that maybe they were coming out because of the new iPhone which was in the news recently.  I didn’t know Steve Jobs personally, and have a limited familiarity with his product (I’m much more familiar with the PC and the often maddening glitches of the Microsoft world).  Still, it saddened me to learn of his passing.  But I took some comfort in sensing that he was ready for his death.  Rachel Maddow had some clips from his Commencement Address at Stanford in 2005 where he spoke of confronting his own mortality.  He had been told that he had only a few months to live because he had pancreatic cancer.  Soon he found that the type he had was operable, and, in 2005 the future was still looking bright.  Other medical conditions, though, eventually led to his early death.  But in that address he said two things that I found profound, and strangely comforting — 1) mortality (and his newly profound awareness of it) was a tool that helped him focus his life and energies into what really mattered — sounds rather like Ben Gazzara’s philosophy in Run for Your Life; 2) death is itself a great invention that allows life to always begin anew, clearing out the old to make way for the new. 

I think a lot about mortality.  And I’ve been thinking of it, on and off, from as long ago as 1962 (aet. 7).  In Steven Becker’s backyard, late one afternoon in the spring, while waiting for Steven Becker to come out, and for Brendan McHugh to join us, I had a realization that, having been born, there was no way to escape death.  The image I had at that time was that my parents had put me on a train (I loved trains and still do) and that, once on the train, I could not get off without dying and that the train itself was headed for a cliff.  There was no escape.  In my mental reconstruction I always imagine me raising my fist in the air cursing my parents for putting me in this awkward and ultimately fatal position.  Of course, I didn’t mention it to my parents at the time — how do you mention that particular matter to your parents at dinner?  That would also be awkward, if not fatal.  And I didn’t mention it to Steven  Becker nor to Brendan McHugh — I was generally regarded as a strange kid and didn’t want to do anything to further call attention to my weirdness.  Still, I recall it as one of those defining moments of my childhood.  Throughout the next week, when things were quiet, I’d continue to think of some way to get off my train safely, and realized that it was impossible.  I’d given up on the whole cursing my parents, though, and as a parent myself I figure I have to cut myself some slack there.

It is said that King Edwin of Northumbria was converted to Christianity when one of his advisers, speaking to the king about the new religion in pagan England, suggested that the life we lead is like that of the sparrow in the hall.  On a cold winter’s night, a sparrow, seeing the light of the great hall flies in and lingers for a while to get warm, and then, in a flash, is gone again.  Life itself was like that — we come from a place we do not know and cannot know, and head into the same darkness at the end of our lives.  All we know as humans is that brief shining moment in the middle.  Christianity, this adviser argued, offered some consolation and hope for that after-darkness, promising salvation after death.  I love that story, but I often think, what of Edwin before the conversion — there he was faced with, at best, an uncertain afterlife.  Apparently, that disturbed him enough to wish to embrace Christianity.  What if you don’t believe in a deity, or don’t believe in an afterlife?  Where’s the comfort then?  Well, as a kid, the idea of Heaven offered little comfort — it seemed almost as terrifying as Hell — Hell had the torments and the punishment, but I didn’t see much difference between Limbo and Heaven — it all seemed a grey area to me.  I remember my mom once saying about Limbo that it was pleasant enough, but that you didn’t see the Face of God, and then I remember her saying that the real pain of Hell was that you didn’t see the Face of God, which confused me, as the deterrent effect of the threat of Hell was that there was a whole lot of torture going on.  And even as a kid, I don’t think the Face of God (as I imagined a deity then) was a deal maker for me.  What I liked was the everyday world I lived in — working class Dorchester — I didn’t really want the hazy, foggy, cloudy place I imagined Heaven to be. 

And so, now that I do not believe in an afterlife, and my death has an even greater finality to it, I have to say that I take comfort in views such as those spoken by Steve Jobs at Stanford.  Though I am not running to embrace death, I take comfort in knowing there’ll be an end point, more comfort than I taken in me continuing on and on and on.  And I think facing the idea of mortality does make life sweeter and more vibrant than it perhaps does when we deny death.  Jobs claimed that his awareness of his mortality led him to live more boldly — what do you have to lose?  You already know you’re going to die, so what’s the point in living too timidly? 

So, thank you, Steve Jobs, not for the iStuff (though I like my iPod), but for such sentiments and providing an example of a life well lived.

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