Happy new year! You’re going to die.

[This essay was originally published at the National Catholic Register in 2015.]

Happy new year! You’re going to die. And my five-year-old can’t wait.

It’s possible that this eagerness comes because I did a little bit too good of a job of helping her get over her fears about death, which were coming to haunt her every evening when she got tired. But when you’re dealing with a weeping kindergartener, the right choice is to err on the side of reassurance.

It’s a difficult balance to strike, when our kids worry about death. We want to comfort and reassure them (and stop the howling!), but at the same time, we don’t want to lie to them, and give the impression that there’s a guaranteed happy ending on everyone’s final page. Death may be a beginning, not an end — a doorway to eternity, not a trap door to oblivion — but it’s still an evil thing, something which was never meant to be in the world.

So to my daughter, I spoke mainly about the joy of the Second Coming; about the glory of our resurrected bodies; about the rejoicing as every wound will be healed, every sorrow erased, every loss restored. She and her sisters now hold enthusiastic conferences about how great it’s going to go be to see their grandfather again, to never get a sore throat again, to be able to stand on their hands as long as they want to. As long as no one’s going to go marching off to the crusades to hasten their entrance into heaven, I’m not too worried.

Soon enough, she will figure out soon enough that if death is a door, it’s still a fearful one. She will understand that yes, it really is possible for people to decide to irrevocably turn away from the good, to shut out forever God and all the good, true, and beautiful things that proceed from Him.

And she will figure out that, even if we don’t choose Hell, the end of our earthly life is often an ugly thing.Those commercials showing old men and old women ending their lives in a golden glow of comfort, security, and contentment? They are lying, trying to sell something. Almost nobody ends that way, and most of us die surrounded by pain and sorrow (if not our own, then our families’). Death is not the final word. But it is evil, all the same.

My daughter will realize this soon enough, in her own time. In the mean time, I’m telling her the brightest version of something that is true, and something that we all need to remember: that the best way to deal with death and the afterlife is to remember, always, that it’s our behavior right now that decides which path we’re on. It’s a good thing to spend some time thinking about death, not to terrify ourselves or to revel in dark things, but to shed some light on our present choices.

This is what the Pope was saying in his New Year’s homily, which he used

to stress life’s fleetingness.

The spiritual leader said, “How we like to be surrounded by so many fireworks, seemingly beautiful, but which in reality last only a few minutes.” …

New Year’s … is a time to reflect on our mortality, “the end of the path of life.”

A few secular folks will no doubt snicker over this dour, killjoy message that only a Catholic could love; but even most secular people should know better. What better time than New Year’s Day to remember that there’s really no point in making merry now — no point in making resolutions now — unless our future matters? And why would our future matter if our present life isn’t significant?

In other words, there is no gross, unfathomable divide between who we are now and what eternity holds for us. The very first thing we learn about ourselves from the Catechism is why we are here. I remember the sweet, profound formula: we are here to know God, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. It’s all part of one continuous story.

Death is an evil chapter, but it is by no means the final one. And so it makes good sense, while we are alive, still thinking, still choosing, still setting our course, to write the story of our lives like a good author: with some plan in mind. The details and the characters need to work themselves out, but the major plot points ought to be settled ahead of time.


Image: AnonymousUnknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Do you even deserve a new year? A quiz

A few questions are all that lie between you and x-treme self-knowledge.

How did you fare as a pet owner?

(a) After rescuing, spaying, and neutering all the chinchillas in the tri-county area, I have established a fellowship to fund chinchilla rescue, spaying and neutering in perpetuity.  Pretty soon, the chinchilla population will be so rescued, there won’t be any at all!

(b) The cat is now litter trained, and the dog now poops in the backyard.  Good enough for me.

(c) Petco, Petsmart, and the Humane Society have posted Polaroids of our family with “DO NOT LET US HAVE LIVING CREATURES NOT EVEN BETTA FISH” scrawled in marker underneath.
How are your people skills coming along?

(a) I don’t mean to brag, but Harry and Meghan?  My idea.

(b) I made it through Thanksgiving without getting in an argument with that one brother-in-law, and I’m proud that my kids saw that it’s possible to get along with people you don’t always agree with.

(c) If I can keep ahead of the sheriff until midnight, that will make only four restraining orders for the year.  Oopsie, that’s a battering ram, gotta go!
Get any exercise this year?

(a) Ohhh, you could say that.  My Nissan Leaf was weighed down by so many of those oval marathon stickers, I had to reclassify it as a light truck.

(b) I just made little changes:  taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking on the outskirts of the parking lot.  Baby steps!

(c) I trained the dog to push the drink trolley over to my armchair.
What have you done to advance cultural literacy in your community?

(a) Since its debut six months ago, my groundbreaking “Shivs for Shakespeare” program decreased prison violence by 87% percent; and the Bolshoi Ballet is naming a new wrist gesture after me, in honor of my contributions to the overall exquisiteness of life.

(b) I joined one of those “let’s keep poetry alive” thingies on Facebook, and posted a Robert Frost poem that I’m fairly sure I understand (it’s ambiguous, right?  Two roads?  I remember ambiguity from college).

(c) One time somebody said it was “gering-ding-ding-ding-dinga-ding-ring!” and I was like lol moran its gering-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding get it rite!
Done anything for the environment lately?

(a) This summer, I came across someone running the engine in her gas-guzzling minivan — just running the engine, not even going anywhere.  She spouted some anthropocentric nonsense about having to keep her disabled grandmother cool with air conditioning while she waited for the pharmacy to refill her heart medication prescription.  I showed them!  Grabbed the keys right out of the ignition, tossed ’em in the river.  I feel kind of bad about the river, though.

(b) I swore off buying cases of bottled water.  An aluminum water bottle works fine, once you get used to it.

(c) Someone from the Nature Conservancy came to my door looking for a donation, and I did not set him on fire.
Any progress in eating better?

(a) Two years ago, I swore off eating anything with eyes.  Last year, I increased my kale consumption by 600%.  This year, my goal is to eliminate anything salty, sweet, sour, or umami, or anything that I can sense with my teeth, tongue, or lips.

(b) I am a busy person, and have made my peace with frozen veggies and “semi-homemade.”

(c) I got a new slow cooker for Christmas and immediately Googled “crockpot moonshine.”
How’s the ol’ spiritual life?

(a) I have consecrated my life to the Sacred Heart, to The Immaculate Heart of Mary, and to Jesus through Mary.  That ought to cover it.

(b) No huge breakthroughs, but I think I’ve grown closer to God, and praying is easier.

(c) Last time I went to confession, the priest did not have to call for emergency back-up.

Have you broken yourself of the habit of ending things too abruptly without proper closure?

(a) Yes.


A version of this quiz originally blah blah blah 2013.
Image by istolethetv via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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Happy Old Year!


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Between FEMEN, climate change, and that ill-considered paintball showdown between Rocco Palmo and Bishop Coyne in the Sala Clementina, the last thing the Vatican needs to do is take any chances with any werewolves. You know there’s room in the papal apartments. They could put newspapers down on the floor if they’re worried about the marble. (I suggest L’Osservatore Romano, because please.)

Read the rest at the Register