On Saturday, November 7, I lost a friend and coworker in an accident. Eleven days later, on Wednesday, November 18, my wife gave birth to our daughter Lucy. It has been a month of stark contrasts; lows and highs.
Even as our family is overjoyed at the squishy little cuddle-cub that just showed up, the sting of the loss is still sharp. My friend’s name was Dan. He was a vibrant and brilliant person, irrepressibly positive, bountifully energetic, and unusually kind. While riding his jet ski in the late afternoon on an unusually warm November evening, he somehow fell into the water. The sequence of events is not entirely clear, but some time later witnesses saw him struggling in the water. By that time it was the dark of night. Emergency crews were called and immediately began a massive search effort involving helicopters and an army plane, but sadly he was only found the next morning, after having succumbed to the cold.
I have worked increasingly closely with Dan for the last few years, often spending a dozen hours or more on the phone with him in a given week working through technical problems of all sorts, planning projects, dealing with personnel issues, and sometimes even dipping into philosophy and metaphysics. He was my boss, but that word doesn’t really convey the relationship we had. He was incredibly supportive of me not only as an employee but as a whole person, and not only of me but of my entire family. As the founder and one of three co-owners of our small engineering / automation company, he made things feel a lot more like family than like ‘just business’.
I got the news of his death on the Sunday evening one week after moving into our new home, as I was working with my dad putting the finishing touches on our new farmhouse-style bed-frame. This farmhouse we bought has a sharp turn in the staircase and our queen-size boxspring had no hope of fitting through that opening. My wife, who was 9 months pregnant at the time and inching miserably towards 10 months, was therefore sleeping on our mattress as it lay on the floor. She had a great attitude about it, but it was not a state of affairs that any self-respecting husband could abide. But neither could I abide the thought of buying a bed-frame to assemble upstairs when I had two hands and some tools and a whole bunch of wood that someone left in these here barns on our new property. So as I was saying, I was working with my dad to finish the bed-frame when I got the call from the other two co-owners of the company.
You can’t really prepare for news like that. Numb shock, incredulity, horror, sadness. My imagination playing through the terrible scene as it unfolded in my mind’s eye. Something like guilt welled up inside as I thought back to what I had been doing the previous evening – relaxing at home and settling into the new house – while a few kilometres away my friend, unbeknownst to me, had been calling for help and fighting for his life. It’s not a rational thought, but why couldn’t I have been there to jump in, throw a rope, shine a light, do something to help?
My dad pretty much finished the rest of the bed by himself. I was useless.
Grief is a strange thing. I lost my mother to cancer in 2012 after two bouts lasting multiple year each, and with seven years of good health between them. That means that the spectre of losing my mom had been in my heart and mind for over a decade before she finally passed away. It is no slight to my friend Dan to say my mother was quite a bit more important to me and played a larger role in my life. Having had so much time to prepare for that loss, I experienced it as a painful conclusion to a long and drawn-out process. In contrast, my friend’s loss came out of the clear blue sky, totally unexpected, and left me reeling emotionally in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.
One thing stands out as tributes have come in for Dan from far and wide: we all agree that life is mighty precious, and that the loss of a life like this is a terrible tragedy. Similarly, as we have announced the birth of our fourth child, our precious little Lucy Mae, the wave of congratulations and kind messages convey the same essential truth: life is so precious.
I agree of course – no argument here. I just stare into the dark little eyes of my two day old daughter, marvel at the exquisite detail of her facial features, the skin so fresh and soft, her body so small and fragile, her mind and consciousness teeming with potential and yet not fully expressed, and I am overcome at the value and preciousness of life. Judging from the responses most people have to newborn babies, I am quite sure that this is the most common reaction.
And yet, given my bent to philosophical musings and interest in history, I can’t help but ask why we feel this way about life – both when it comes to the birth of a child and when it comes to the loss of a life. Is this simply a given universal fact? At the risk of committing epistemology, how do we know that this conviction about the value of life is, well, true? A look at human history reveals that this is by no means a universal truth affirmed everywhere. It was not true for Rome. It was not true for Greece. It was not true for that sordid list of 20th-century atrocities.
So why do we feel such pain at the loss of a life, and such joy at the new arrival of a life? For me the most compelling reason – intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually – is the imago dei; the idea that humans are made in the image of God and therefore imbued with eternal value. But this is so hard to believe these days – we are well into late modernity and the attendant mood does not encourage belief in such things, indeed it hardly allows it! There are many reasons for this, but this is not the time to get into that. It will suffice for the moment to point out that just because we are at this point in the intellectual arc of Western Civilization, where the world is disenchanted and everything has been seemingly explained materially, does not mean that it is true.
So if you believe life is precious, as I assume you do, the question is: does your worldview provide an adequate foundation for it? As I mourn the loss of my friend and celebrate the birth of my child, I’m thankful to have such deep roots to draw on and such a solid foundation to stand on.