Jonathan Tjarks got sick this spring and was in bad shape — fevers, fatigue, weight loss. For the longest time, doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him. Finally, they honed in on a type of cancer that has spread throughout his body. It is treatable, but even though he’s only 31 years old, the recovery rate is less than 50 percent.
“I just couldn’t get one thought out of my head,” Jonathan writes. “I could actually die. Cancer might not kill me, but it could.”
The experience raises some really tough questions for him — questions he shares in a compelling story for The Ringer called “Long Night of the Soul.” If you have a few minutes to read about his journey, it will absolutely change the way you think about your life.
One of the most effective images in his story reveals our allergy to thinking about death:
One of the best metaphors I’ve heard for modern life is that it’s a car headed toward a cliff’s edge while billboards line both sides of the road, blocking the driver’s view. Those billboards are all the distractions that society has to offer. Netflix. Sports. Movies. Music. Everything you consume to avoid thinking about where you are ultimately headed. And those billboards cover your view until the end of the road, when suddenly the cliff approaches. Then, as your car is flying in the air, that’s when you start thinking about death and the meaning of life.
As a Christian, I felt like I was prepared for that moment. But there’s nothing that can truly do that. It’s the long night of the soul. It’s a version of a well-known phrase that I often think of. I don’t care how strong your faith is. Staring into the abyss will make you question everything. I wish getting through it were as simple as quoting a few Bible verses and then going to bed.
So what is a person to do? Jonathan turned to his faith. Even if faith doesn’t remove the fear he feels about death, putting his life in God’s hands does give him a sense of purpose, a sense that God is walking with him through this experience.
It turns out that there’s a long tradition in our faith of contemplating death. The practice is called memento mori, and it helps us remember that our lives are finite and limited — that we will all die one day. That awareness helps us search for purpose and meaning — to find and hold on to the things that matter the most.
Grotto contributor Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, was just profiled in The New York Times for bringing memento mori to Twitter and Instagram. She’s often referred to as “the death nun,” but her outlook is not dour or depressing. Remembering our death actually leads to joy, she says, because it clarifies who we are — or, more precisely whose we are.
Sister Aletheia and Jonathan would both agree that it’s helpful to live with an awareness of our death — even if we’re perfectly healthy right now. Being firmly grounded in the things that matter most brings hope and purpose to our days — it actually makes us stronger because we tap into God’s loving presence and are sustained by it.
And whether or not we are willing to face our mortality, it’s a reality that will come for each of us regardless. There is no escape, so the only way is through. As Jonathan writes:
Most Americans spend so much time striving, trying to be successful, trying to climb further up the ladder. Trying to achieve. Trying to give our lives meaning. It all fades away in that moment, when all you are left to grapple with is what you really believe about life and death.
It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you have done, or how much medical care your money can buy. We all have to face that moment. It’s the only moment when every person on Earth is truly equal. We come into this world with nothing and leave it the same way.