October 21, 2011

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

Keep death daily before your eyes to live life to its fullest

Sean GallagherWhen I came home last Sunday evening after a nice fall afternoon in Brown County with my family, I was shocked to learn of the death of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon in the Izod Indy Car World Championship at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

I have followed open-wheel racing since I was a little boy, and always been taken aback when competitors are either seriously injured or killed on the track.

The next day, I listened to some commentators on a sports radio talk show reflecting on the tragedy. One of them said that race car drivers simply have to “turn off” that part of their brains that allows them to know that death can come for them in a moment in practice, qualifying or during races.

I believe that there is some truth in such an analysis. And the same could be said for athletes in various other sports as well as pilots, miners and people in other high risk occupations.

At the same time, I wondered how spiritually and psychologically healthy such an attitude is and, ultimately, how necessary it is for people in these professions.

Some 1,500 years ago, St. Benedict wrote in his Rule for monasteries that monks should “keep death daily before one’s eyes.” In giving this advice, he wasn’t encouraging an unhealthy morbid personality. He was simply trying to cultivate the virtue of humility in monks.

Humility is ultimately about recognizing the reality and limits of our lives and not living in a prideful, unrealistic illusion. As death is a primary reality in all our lives, to actively ignore it is bad for us. In saying this, I am not making a blanket judgment that all race car drivers are more prideful than the rest of us. Indeed, Dan Wheldon showed a lot of humility after winning the Indianapolis 500 this year.

I’m also not advocating some kind of banning of auto racing because of the dangers involved in it. There have been car races since there have been cars, and that is because being competitive is simply part of what it means to be human.

Having a healthy, conscious awareness of our own personal mortality can make us stronger and make success more likely for us all—whether we are Indy Car drivers, accountants, stay-at-home dads or moms or factory workers. Perhaps it’s been that value of human life seen in a conscious acknowledgment of death that has driven so many advances in safety in auto racing over the past several decades.

Being more humble, however, won’t guarantee success, as we all learned when Wheldon drank the milk at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May. Victory and defeat often come to us through no credit or fault of our own.

When we keep death daily before our eyes, the goodness to be found in the little moments of everyday life become sweeter. We learn to recognize and consciously take joy in little victories that we achieve each day. This happens because we know concretely that each day may very well be our last.

At the same time, when we keep death daily before our eyes, we can grow in our appreciation of the good in other people. That can happen because we’re more cognizant of the possibility that the unique goodness of the people in our lives can disappear in a moment whenever they are called from this life.

When we keep death daily before our eyes, we won’t be in a position to say after a friend or loved one has died, “How sad it is that I only appreciated her once she was no longer here.”

At first glance, we might think that St. Benedict’s advice to keep death daily before our eyes would lead us to be fearful. But in the end, it should do just the opposite. It should fill us with courage to live each day to the fullest, taking advantage of all the blessings that God sends our way each day.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter for The Criterion.)

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