With the passing of Steve Jobs, news outlets were playing clips of his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University. It’s been viewed millions of times on YouTube and I took a few minutes today to watch it in its entirety. I was struck by its profound wisdom.
This is the passage that stuck with me:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.
As I drove into work this morning, I thought of others who sounded this note.
Jonathan Edwards contemplated life from the perspective of his death quite often. Here are two of his resolutions:
Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
This may sound quite morbid to American ears, unaccustomed as we are to ponder death regularly. But as Jobs points out, considering one’s death is wonderfully clarifying. It puts trivialities into perspective, along with our fears and foolish idolatries. It clarifies what’s truly important.
There’s precedent in wisdom literature to ponder death, to consider seriously life’s sober realities, and to consider present circumstances from that perspective. Consider Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes:
It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
the living should take this to heart.
Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure (7:2-4).