We're Dying. Let's Act Like It.

What Tim Keller taught me

Tim Keller died a week ago. A pastor at Redeemer Church in Manhattan and a prolific writer, Tim had battled cancer for years. Many have written and recorded tributes to Tim in the past week, and they have all been moving testaments to the man's heart. Tim was a servant leader through and through, and these tributes show that he meant so much to so many people. For me, Tim was the embodiment of Wordworth's happy warrior:

The happy Warrior... is the generous Spirit, who, when brought among the tasks of real life, hath wrought upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought: whose high endeavors are an inward light that makes the path before him always bright.

William Wordsworth

Tim wrote an article in The Atlantic discussing his journey with cancer. And although he was a devout Christian, Tim was not immune to the grief, anger, and bafflement that comes in times of crisis. After all, nobody is. He cites Ernest Becker's argument that our culture is dominated by the denial of death. Every day we become more and more comfortable, more divorced from the realities of the pre-modern world that made death a far more common occurrence. The result of this is that so many of us ignore our mortality until it's too late.

We undertake all things as if we were establishing immortality for ourselves on earth. If we see a dead body, we may philosophize briefly about the fleeting nature of life, but the moment we turn away from the sight the thought of our own perpetuity remains fixed in our minds.

John Calvin

When it became clear that Tim's time on earth was coming to its end, he understood the need to reassess his faith not from the perspective of someone who had seen others through loss or counseled the dying, but as someone who was dying himself. To Tim, facing his coming death without debilitating fear required two things:

Is there a way to spend the time you have left growing into greater grace, love, and wisdom? I believe there is, but it requires both intellectual and emotional engagement: head work and heart work.

Tim Keller

Head work and heart work.

Head work and heart work are requirements to live a fruitful life in the modern age

I've always been a person who had a habit of intellectualizing and over-analyzing the things I learn and read. The things I consume often get mulled over, thought over, and torn apart until I feel confident in my understanding of them. The result of this is that I often have a great head understanding of things, but I rarely have a heart understanding of them.

I've worn a necklace every day for the past few years. It has a once gold-coated pendant on the end that says "Memento Mori". That Latin term that sits on my faded, worn necklace can often be seen in the works of Marcus Aurelius or Stoic authors, calling each of us to "Remember that you will die." The stoics used the term to encourage readers and students to live life with the knowledge that we could leave this world tomorrow. Theoretically, this knowledge should make us live a lot differently than we tend to these days, but it means nothing unless it resonates in our hearts.

This head and heart work made even the mundane moments of life richer for Tim. Acknowledging our fleeting existence on Earth—and for the religious, reminding ourselves that we are not yet home—can bring about a new humility and new appreciation for the fleeting moments in our lives. My Memento Mori necklace made this clear to my head; Tim made this clear to my heart—not as encouragement to hedonistically engage in reckless behavior, but as inspiration to let our mortality guide our lives to be full of joy and gratitude.

As I continue processing Tim's death through rereading his works and reflecting on my own mortality, I'm reminded that we should all come to terms with our inevitable end sooner than later so that it influences how we live right now—not acting impulsively or seizing every opportunity recklessly—but appreciating what surrounds us while taking a long view of life.

For those with faith like mine, this world serves merely as temporary lodging before we journey home. The pains of this world are real but fleeting, and we should be grateful for the life we have, cherish our moments, and enjoy what's given to us. Tim taught me these things, and although I'm saddened by his passing, his impact on my heart has only grown since his death.

Extra, extra!

I know not everyone who reads this is Christian, but I assume if you’ve made it this far there’s a decent chance you are or are at least unbothered by faith. In keeping with the theme this week, here’s a book and some songs that have been meaningful to me:

The Anxiety Opportunity by Curtis Chang

I’ve struggled with anxiety off and on for my entire adult life. Curtis Chang is a pastor and professor who just published The Anxiety Opportunity, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the first 30 pages or so. I’ll probably end up writing a book review at some point, but so far I highly recommend it.

New Tunes

Have a lovely weekend.

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