In the late Summer of 2010, I came upon my first poignant realization of the fear of death. I was preparing to leave the States for a deployment to Afghanistan, and all signs were pointing to it being a very active and remote section of the country where heavy combat was likely. I had just turned 20 and I kept thinking about the likelihood of not coming home, and to be frank, it scared me. The only thing I could do at that point, where I was, was to call my Uncle who was a former officer in the Army and a Doctor. I had known that he had seen both war and death in Somalia and in Haiti. What he told me, (At that time he was the father of twelve), was that we never know the day or the hour that we will die, it could be there, it could be tomorrow, it could be when we come back, it could be in peacetime, it could be in wartime, it could be when you are old or when you are young. That conversation satisfied and put an end to my worrying, at least for the moment.
There are points in our lives when we think about death much more perhaps than we think about life, and then again there are points when we think about life and weddings, and the birth of our children, or when they take their first steps. Point in fact, new life is what makes us forget about death. I recently watched for the second time the WWI film 1917, directed by Sam Mendes, and it follows the story of two lance corporals in the British Army who are trying to get a message across No Man’s Land to their forces on the other side. The movie even seems to draw parallels between Frodo and Sam in the Lord of the Rings as they both help each other across the wastelands of No Man’s Land or across the deserts of Mordor to deliver a message or to complete a mission. WWI, specifically with its abhorrent casualty rates, shows how quickly life can be extinguished and it was portrayed quite vividly in 1917. Movies like that or real stories like mine show the true vulnerability of the human person, fragile in nature, and only temporary, only temporary…only temporary.
In late August of 2010, just mere months after I had that phone call with my Uncle, we were preparing to leave the large base in Afghanistan and travel miles to our small outpost in a long convoy. This was my first mission, and at the last minute, I was selected to be a gunner, which instead of sitting in the back of the vehicle, I had to be alert the entire time, standing or leaning against the machine gun behind the minimal cover of turret armor. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of doing my job or fearful of that position, but just as I was thinking about the realizations of death a few months prior, they were much more realistic when I was preparing to go on what could be a hard mission.
I remember a friend of mine having a phone, and we were able to make quick little calls on it before we left, and I recall crying quietly as I called home talking to my family as I asked them to pray for me. In my world, in my life, the only thing that can quell the pain, or the fear, or the unknown, was God. And by turning to Him, then, now, always, it seemed like the only thing that could warm my heart. That experience was most definitely not the only brush with death that I had but it was my first encounter with my perception of my own mortality.
Fast-forwarding to today, we hear these horrible stories, these tragic incidents; whether it’s family or friends who pass away way too soon or 41-year old basketball superstars who die in fatal accidents, it really makes us pause and take stock of the lives we live that are so short and only temporary. But for those who believe in eternal life and for those who believe in God, the thing that is not temporary is our soul, and the mission that we have on earth is only a means to an end. Life is only a means to prove ourselves to act as God wants us to so that we can get to that glorious and heavenly home, whether we are 20, 41, or 100 years old. We have to do what we can with the time that is given to us.
Our mortal lives on earth are tied to time. Time in its essence is momentary, there is a beginning, and there is an end to all our actions. When we think about lives, whether they be short or long, they are tied to time. In the grand scheme of things, life is not that way; life instead begins when our soul is created, and it never ends. As humans, it is hard for us to understand this concept; there are things that we have to take on faith and trust that it is truth. Nevertheless, in an era where we are constantly faced with tragic incidents, it is hard for us to not dwell on our temporary nature. What we instead must understand is not our momentary physical bodies but our eternal spiritual souls. This understanding can often be difficult when you are a parent of young children, or a parent to a child who is ill, or a parent to a child who dies before you do because it makes us think about the painful memories and not the happiness of life.
Death and its finite understanding is technically quite simple, unfortunately for us; however, we are not able to understand or have a premonition of when it might occur. Therefore, death can hurt more depending on its level of imminent tragedy or expected reality. We often tell ourselves that we have something yet to prove or something else to do or something to achieve and therefore are invulnerable to death or illness or disease. We are much weaker than we think even in our ever-present wisdom, we still have no control over things that might alter our state of mind or our physical presence. This will never change; our knowledge of things might increase, and our length of temporal presence might be extended but our ability to discern or know when our earthly end is will always be an unknown paradigm in this mystery called life.