At the graveyard where members of our parish are buried, there is one tombstone that never fails to give me pause. It is in commemoration of a little boy died weeks shy of his third birthday. If he were alive today, he would be a man of twenty-seven, the biological prime of his life. Looking at that tombstone makes me sad, of course; I have small children of my own, and even if I didn’t, I’m a human being and can appreciate the sorrow of a small child’s death.
But there’s another aspect to this that I think about. Perhaps I’m a bad person for even entertaining this thought, but so be it: maybe an early death is an example of God’s mercy.
I have two thoughts on this matter. The first is more pedestrian, the second is more controversial.
If one is a believer, then one believes that many, if not all, things happen for a reason. For example, this young boy’s brief life and tragic death may have been a way to teach a vital lesson to the living. The religious very often view unfortunate events as having a hidden good, the proverbial silver lining. This may be a coping mechanism that is universal to most of humanity, but it may also be true. You never know. That’s the nature of faith. And in general, taking a good out of an evil is akin to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. This is a very important point that anyone familiar with Christian theology does not need me to elaborate on.
However, perhaps the young boy’s death was a way of saving the young boy from growing up into a man. What is a common thing we hear adults say, usually about themselves, but sometimes about other people when that person or their parents and other loved ones aren’t around? “Oh, I used to be cute. And then I grew up.”
“Cute” can mean a few things beyond physical beauty. It’s also a personality trait. But when people say things like this, there’s a hidden meaning that is sometimes spoken out in the open: “I used to be a good person.”
It’s a sad commentary on the human condition, but it’s true: we are born innocent and pure and then grow up to be sinful. I’m not going to do that hokey, mostly American, Christian thing and say “I’m the worst Christian of all, the worst sinner of all,” because it’s very self-aggrandizing and a false show of modesty—a humblebrag, if you will—but I will say that if I could have stayed childlike my whole life from a spiritual standpoint, I’d be a much better person than I am today.
This all might be a different way of saying my first point, taking a good out of an evil. But there’s a deeper spiritual dimension at work here: there is no way this young boy is now not resting in the bosom of the Lord, numbered among the righteous. Will people be able to say the same thing with such certainty about us when we die? Can you say it about yourself?
* * *
Time is the enemy. When we talk about a “race against time,” or that “time is working against me,” and “not on my side,” we mean a situation where there is too little. I like to imagine a secret agent desperately trying to escape the enemy’s secret base after activating the conspicuously placed self-destruct mechanism, but your mileage may vary.
However, there is another aspect to the danger posed by time. If we have too much, if we have nothing but time, then we enter the Devil’s workshop. Don’t we?
How many people do you know who are adults, married or unmarried, without children or any real responsibilities besides maybe being a pet owner and having rent payments? “I love my free time,” they say. What do they fill it with? Drinking too much on Fridays and Saturdays and having brunch on Sundays? Binge-watching the latest new show that everyone else is binge-watching? Finding different restaurants to go to in between catching the latest movie of some comic book or other corporate pop culture franchise? Having random sexual dalliances?
And then what?
What about the endless search for self-improvement? What about when the pursuit of excellence, of arete, turns into narcissistic vanity? Or Mammon-worship, where the money and stuff become the end of itself and woe betide any who get in the way of more? How about lust? Monkeys in captivity do not self-pleasure, as a famous philosopher likes to say, but they do in captivity. What does that mean? What does it mean if your free time is spent either trying to get sex or a simulacrum thereof?
At the end of your days, could you safely say that you used your time well?
Perhaps this little boy and so many others like him were spared a fate worse than death. They avoid the trap of growing up in a world nearly devoid of spirit and soul, a world dedicated to the pleasures of the flesh and ease of comfort, a society predicated on the theory that you would learn to love your captivity, and fight to the death against that which threatens to open up your cage.
* * *
Close your eyes and imagine that you had a terminal illness right now. Less than a year to live. What would you do if that were true? Would you try to acquire wisdom, knowledge, and virtue, or would you continue indulging in the vices and idleness that endless free-time has given you?
The industrial and technological revolutions have allowed for physical and material miracles at the price of a deep and profound acedia. Ancients were etching profound ideas on stone tablets and committing them to memory in between performing backbreaking labor and fighting off terrible diseases and enemy hordes. They were thinking deeper thoughts than anything you or I could hope to even understand, let alone come up with ourselves. We complain about writer’s block and too many distractions when the hardest our life gets is where to order food for dinner that will be brought piping hot to our front door.
On a long enough timeline, in the absence of a higher purpose, man becomes a fat, dumb, masturbating chimp in a cage.
That which was supposed to have freed us up for endless human flourishing has instead provided fertile soil for greater, more creative perversions. Time is the enemy because human beings do not know how to use it when we are given an abundance.
If there is no urgency and sense that a resource will ever be fully used up, human beings will find a way to waste it.
If there’s something you’ve been meaning to do, start it now. If there’s some fence you’ve been putting off mending until that mythical someday, do it now. It’s not very easy to practice what I preach, a fact which compounds the shame I already feel at the scores of wasted years piled up behind me like plague victims. But I can’t help but think about that young boy’s grave and come to the conclusion that he is the blessed one, the lucky one, the most fortunate. After all, he is with God, and he never had the time to sin.