Reflecting on our own mortality can be key to finding meaning, purpose and joy in our lives.
Bruce Springsteen’s 2020 Letter to You, opens with an ominous image of death that sets the theme for the 12-tracks that follow.
Big black train coming down the track / Blow your whistle long and long-“One Minute You’re Here” by Bruce Springsteen
One minute you’re here, next minute you’re gone.
In many ways, these songs are the reflections of a 70-something-year-old rock legend ruminating on his mortality. In another, it is the story of all of us.
As philosophers and theologians have shared over the years, accepting our mortality is key to finding happiness, meaning and purpose in this life.
At first blush, this sounds crazy, and for some Christians downright blasphemous. The goal is forever-life. Right? Live as long as possible and keep it going in the afterlife.
What many have discovered, however, is that the preciousness of each breath isn’t fully realized until we recognize we have a finite amount of them. When we come to realize that there will be a time when we will breathe no more, we come alive to moments happening all around us while we can.
The big, black train
For Bruce, death is a train coming down the track. According to Wikipedia, the long and long whistle, signals that the brakes are off and the train is in motion able to flatten us like the penny the youthful Springsteen lays on the tracks.
I love how that image of the penny is also one of the simple joys of life Springsteen reflects on, along with walking around a carnival with the one you love. Read the full lyrics here.
As he sings these verses, we sense the pace of life. We travel from childhood to laying one’s body down, in 3 minutes.
This understanding of life — one minute you’re here, next minute you’re gone — brings with it a sense of true joy, meaning and purpose in everyday moments. Some we may have missed at the time, but are precious all the same.
Life as vapor
The author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, who has lived the BCE version of the rock and roll lifestyle, wrestles with many of the same questions. He calls life a vapor or — as the Common English Bible translates it — pointless.
After the section the Byrds made famous (Turn! Turn! Turn!), the author asks this question, “What do workers gain from all their hard work?” A few sentences later, he shares his conclusion. “This is the gift of God: that all people should eat, drink, and enjoy the results of their hard work.”
Then after a reflection on death—all are from the dust, all return to the dust—he writes, “I perceived that there was nothing better for human beings but to enjoy what they do because that’s what they’re allotted in life” (see Ecclesiastes 3).
Seems today, it is easy to get caught up in the pointlessness of it all, to use the word of the author of Ecclesiastes. A pandemic, political division, and church disputes alongside all of your personal struggles can get you to question the meaning of days we are given. The despair can steal our joy.
Heeding Springsteen and Ecclesiastes’ reminders about the finite nature of life can help us find joy, meaning and purpose every day.