Radio Commentary for Michigan Public Radio
Lately, my wife has been insisting, in her sweet but unrelenting way, that I accept the fact that I am going to die.
I don’t appreciate this.
Of course I know and accept the inevitability of my physical death — I can almost handle that — but she thinks it is time, now that I have turned 40, to take a step further: to accept the probability that mine will be a complete and total oblivion; annihilation; the disappearance of every trace; a cosmic and eternal anonymity. This is what I am being asked to accept.
Now my wife will gamely smile and say that all she wants me to do is go through my old boxes in the basement and throw out the stuff I don’t need anymore. You see, she’s cleaning out the place and says it’s time to say goodbye to the term papers from college; the files from projects I worked on fifteen years ago; the old journals that once influenced my thinking.
But what she is really asking me to do is admit that we will never find any of my future biographers at our door, asking to mine the riches of these boxes for the sake of posterity.
“You want to throw away my corpus?!” I shriek, clutching the cardboard box containing every note, doodle and dream I had between the ages of 18 and 22. “Do you have any idea what you’re asking? Someday this will be valuable! Look,” I beg, pulling out a file marked “Psychology and Religion, 1977.” “Look at this term paper — my critique of Freud’s theory of religion! Someday someone will recognize its brilliance!”
My wife takes the five-page paper and flips to the last page. “B+,” she says. “What’s it say here: `Some good insights, but on the whole unconvincing and only marginally relevant.’”
“That professor never liked me!” I stammer.
“Yeah right,” she says, and hands back the paper while she does this thing with her eyebrows that always makes me feel small. “Honey,” she says, “you’re a priest. I should think you’d be more worried about getting into heaven than getting into print!”
“This is no time to talk theology!” I cry. She returns to the kitchen and starts pounding boneless chicken breasts into flat, defeated patties.
So now my sad, undervalued boxes have found sanctuary in my office. They are huddled in the corner like frightened sheep. They are my most loyal friends. They have followed me through the best and the worst years of my vanishing youth; they have been moved so many times their corners are slumped and droopy; they have been stacked and dropped so many times they look like paper sacks. But they are safe now; my destiny for the moment preserved.
Some rainy day, I might open them and marvel again at the dizzy heights my mind has attained, tragically unbeknownst to the rest of humankind.
Meanwhile, I will simply write about them, adding these words to the pile of words that is my legacy; scrawling yet another message and casting it, in its bottle, upon the seas of oblivion.
But first I must put out of my mind my wife’s taunting words as she watched me carry my boxes away: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Chaplain, Canterbury House
Director, Institute for Public Theology