E GOT THE CALL SHORTLY AFTER 8:00 p.m. My husband, Michael, was driving home from work. I had just sat down to eat dinner. It was Michaels dad on the phone. Its Jonathan, he said. Theyre in his apartment, and they think theres something wrong with him. Hes not waking up.
Michael called me, frantic, and told me he was driving straight to his brothers apartment. I was surprisingly calm. Nothing could be too wrong, I thought. Do you want me to stay here, or do you want me to meet you there? I asked.
No, Ill come pick you up, he said. Ill call you when Im close. Meet me at the car.
I hung up the phone and quickly threw on some jeans and a sweatshirt. Id already been wearing my pajamas, ready for a quiet evening at home.
A few minutes later the phone rang again. It was Michael. I grabbed my purse and filled our cats food and water bowls. I had a feeling it was going to be a long night--Jonathans condition sounded serious--and I wanted to be sure the kitties were taken care of.
I closed our apartment door and ran down the steps. I ran first to my car to grab my hospital employee ID card; I hoped I wouldnt need it. But I felt empty, dazed--and eerily worried we would never even make it to a hospital.
Jonathans going to be fine. I snapped out of my worry and held tightly to my ID card as I sat in Michaels car. This happens to other people--not to my family.
Before we turned out of the complex, my father-in-laws anguished cry pierced through my husbands cell phone. No, no, no! Not my son!
My stomach turned.
Jonathans heart wasnt beating.
Michael slammed his hands on the steering wheel and sat, staring ahead for several seconds, before he pulled onto the street.
We sped to Jonathans apartment, which was just a few miles away. My mother-in-law was already there. We couldnt get through the complexs gate, so we parked outside, squeezed between the railings, and ran. We ran to his building, Michael far ahead. We raced up three flights of those wooden stairs--thump, thump, thump--only to hear as we reached the top:
Im sorry, maam. We cant let you in.
Im sorry, maam, the police officer said again. Hes gone. Hes deceased.
What! my mother-in-law shouted and began to cry. No, no, no . . .
Michael paced the hallway. I held my mother-in-law as she turned and sobbed.
I could hardly catch my breath. How could this possibly be true? My carefree, bighearted brother-in-law was dead. My husbands little brother, just 23 years old--tall, muscular, handsome, healthy--was gone.
As I look back, I know that moment--about 8:45 on a muggy March night in Florida--changed our lives forever.
Everything Is Meaningless
I remember trying to read the book of Ecclesiastes when I was a teenager. I got through the first chapter and gave up. How depressing is this? I thought, despising the authors pessimism.
Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? (Eccl. 1:2, 3).* When I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun (Eccl. 2:11).
It sounded to me like a midlife crisis gone awry, and I flipped to lighter subject matter.
For years I never ventured back to this depressing chapter of the Bible. Why waste my time? I thought. Why focus on the futility of life? Why not focus on the positive?
It wasnt until I read the best-selling book Tuesdays With Morrie (Doubleday Press, 1997) that Ecclesiastes message began to make sense.
In Tuesdays With Morrie, a real-life story, author Mitch Albom returns to visit his favorite college professor, Morrie Schwartz, who is steadily dying from Lou Gehrigs disease. They begin to meet every Tuesday in Morries study, just as they did 20 years ago, and Morries lessons on life-in-the-face-of-death turn into their final class together.
One Tuesday Morrie shares this lesson with Mitch:
Everyone knows theyre going to die, [Morrie] said again, but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently.
So we kid ourselves about death, I said.
Yes. But theres a better approach. To know youre going to die, and to be prepared for it at any time. Thats better. That way you can actually be more involved in your life while youre living.
The truth is, Mitch, he said, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.
Im going to say it again, he said. Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.
But everyone knows someone who has died, I said. Why is it so hard to think about dying?
Because, Morrie continued, most of us all walk around as if were sleepwalking. We really dont experience the world fully, because were half-asleep, doing things we automatically think we have to do.
And facing death changes that?
Oh, yes. You strip away all that stuff and you focus on the essentials. When you realize you are going to die, you see everything much differently.
He sighed. Learn how to die, and you learn how to live (excerpts from Tuesdays With Morrie, pages 81-83).
Whats Worth Your Time?Morrie and the author of Ecclesiastes, who most believe was Solomon, are really sharing the same message. Once you look at life through the eyes of your own certain death, your priorities change. Selfish ambition, wild pleasure-seeking, a consuming pursuit of wisdom--what does it really get you in the end?
Solomon said: I tried it all. I studied hard and earned more degrees than everyone else. I was respected for my knowledge; but the more that I learned, the more I realized I didnt know. It was a waste of time. So I turned to partying. I got drunk and chased after women; I put all my energy into having a good time. I built houses and became a prestigious man. But when I look back at all Ive done in my life, what is going to last? What was really worth my time? (paraphrased from Ecclesiastes 1:12-18; 2:1-11).
Does Solomon mean that theres no use in doing good things? No. He said, Wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both (Eccl. 2:13, 14). For death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart (Eccl. 7:2).
Their message is the same: Know youre going to die, and think about it every single day. How will that thought process change the way you live your life? Will you spend more time with family and less time at work? Will you find a job that makes you happy, even if it makes less money? Will you wear the nice outfit that youve been saving for a special occasion? Will you take the time to savor a beautiful sunset, as if it were the last you were ever going to see? Will you have more frequent and more meaningful conversations with God?
Think about it: if today were your last day, how would you spend it?
Have Fun Balancing
Solomons answer to these questions is twofold: live a balanced life--and enjoy it!
Ecclesiastes shouts the principle of balance throughout its texts. Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven. Solomon realized that life is a blend of opposite activities: birth and death, weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, silence and speaking, love and hate, war and peace. He knew that living a fulfilling life meant walking the delicate tightrope of balance between these activities. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes, he said (Eccl. 7:18).
Ecclesiastes also proposes balance between work and play: The fool folds his hands and ruins himself. Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind (Eccl. 4:5, 6).
Finally, Ecclesiastes teaches us to enjoy lifes little pleasures. What I once found to be a depressing book, I now see as a celebration of life. Solomon said: Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him--for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work--this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart (Eccl. 5:18-20).
So enjoy life with your family and friends. Eat with them and be happy. God designed it that way. Dress in clean clothes so that you look nice; use a little oil if necessary to groom your hair. Enjoy life with your wife whom you love and with your children, family, and friends as long as you live. Life by itself is a meaningless round of activities, and without some happiness its not worth living. Whatever you do, do your best and enjoy it. Once you die, theres no activity, thought, knowledge, or wisdom in the grave where youll eventually go (Eccl. 9:7-10, Clear Word).
In other words, Ecclesiastes pleads for you to find balance in your life. Work hard, play hard, and love even harder. Have fun following Gods plan for your life and stop worrying about accumulating wisdom, wealth, or prestige. Enjoy the gifts--both great and small--that God has given you each day.
Wearing My Tuesday Glasses
Jonathans death has been one of the most difficult experiences in my life, especially as I watch my husband and our family grieve. Because of Jonathans death, we are changing the way we live our lives. We have learned that you can never talk enough, never hug enough, and never say I love you enough because you never know when you wont have another opportunity. Were learning to live each day as if its our last--and to treat those around us as if it could be their last day too.
Its what Jonathan would have wanted, and its how Jonathan strove to live.
Life changes when someone you love dies. You carry the memory of that person with you each day, as well as the realization that life, love, family, and friends are too precious to take for granted. And all those other things that seemed so important? In comparison, theyre meaningless. I call my new outlook on life wearing my Tuesday glasses.
Because, as Morrie said in Tuesdays With Morrie, When you realize you are going to die, you see everything much differently.
And also because that moment that changed our lives forever--at about 8:45 on a muggy March night in Florida--was a Tuesday.
*Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts are from the New International Version.
Amanda Sauder Maggard is a corporate trainer for Adventist Health Systems in Orlando, Florida.