Recently, I’ve started relistening to a lot of mewithouYou, especially after writing about their song “Dryness and the Rain” for my “Politics in ‘Christian’ Songs” series. That song led me to play it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright (2009) on repeat, partly because it’s one of the six cds that have been in my car’s cd player for, let me see, the past year or two. As I listen to that album, my kids gravitate towards songs such as “The Fox, The Crow, and the Cookie,” and I go to songs like “Every Thought A Thought of You” and “The King Beetle and the Coconut Estate.” Along with these songs, I’ve always enjoyed “The Angel of Death Came to David’s Room.” Over the past few weeks, I’ve really gravitated to this song because of it deals with the fleetingness of our existence.
The song is a conversation between the Angel of Death and David, and it builds, steadily, as the song nears the end. David pleads with the angel, telling him, “I think you’ve come too soon.” The angel, though, reminds David that everyone must, one day, die. He asks David what has happened to his grandparents, his mother, aunts, and uncles. As David continues to resist, the angel asks David where Uriah, Bathsheba, and where his and Bathsheba’s first child have all gone. They’ve all passed on.
As I listen to “The Angel of Death Came to David’s Room,” multiple thoughts race through my mind. I think about the mist that floats alongs the mountains in the morning. As I drive some mornings I see it. It lingers there, floating over the landscape, and eventually, it disappears. The fleetingness of the mist is like the fleetingness of our existence. It arrives, lingers for a while, then it leaves. In James 4:14, the author asks, “What is your life?” Answering the question, the author continues, “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” When we realize the brief nature of our existence, we should ask ourselves, “What do we want to leave behind?”
What we want to leave behind differs from person to person, yes, but I think we can all agree that we want to leave behind a better world than the one we inhabit. There will always be issues, and instead of waiting for the future generations to address those issues, as we have done on countless occasions, we must confront them head on so that future generations won’t have to deal with the problems that we have let grow and mutate because we were too cowardly to act. Part of this confrontation comes in the form of education.
Pleading with the Angel of Death, David asks, “Can I tell Solomon the things I’ve learned?” The angel simply responds, “I’m sorry, friend, that’s none of my concern. It’s time. It’s time to go.” When do we start sharing the things we have learned? What things do we share? Do we share the truth or sugarcoat it? Do we continue to perpetuate the myths or do we speak the truth? Do we shield the future generation, most notably our children? To all of these questions, I say we teach our children the truth, no matter how painful that truth may be, and we teach them to stand up for justice. When we die, those we impacted will remain, and our actions and the ways that those individuals remember us will continue on long after the mist fades away.
Along with what we pass on, we must remember that, as Sho Baraka writes in He Saw That it Was Good, “Knowledge and prestige have an expiration date. Excellence lives beyond your death.” While we may pass on the knowledge we have, the knowledge we have within our heads dies with us. We’ve imparted it to others, but it has changed in the process. Our actions, though, live on. Those actions can promote excellence, working towards a better society. Or, those actions can promote destruction, tearing down and hindering any growth. What we choose to do as we live has ramifications long after we dies.
On her tombstone, Lillian Smith has a quote from The Journey, a book she wrote after being diagnosed with breast cancer. It says, “Death can kill a man, that is all it can do to him. It cannot end his life because of memory.” What memory will others have of us? Will their memory point to us favorably? Will they think about us and want to make the world better? Will they resent us? All of that is up to us. It’s our choice, while we live, to live a life that affects the ways others view us, both during our lives and afterwards.
Death doesn’t consume my thoughts, but I’d be lying if I said that I never think about it. When I think about my passing, I think about what I’ll leave behind. I think about the impact I’ve made, both the positive and the negative. I think about the knowledge I’ve shared. I think about the connections I have and have had. At the core of all of this, I think about creating the world I want for everyone. I think about what I can do, during my time on this floating rock, to see that come into fruition, maybe not during my lifetime, but sometime. If I can leave this world a better place that it was when I arrived, in some small way, then my fleeting vapor will not be so fleeting.
Even though the mist disappears from the mountains, it remains in my mind. I see it there, floating over the surface of the mountains in the distance, the blue shadows forming rocks that stretch towards the sky and blend in with the clouds. The mist remains. It may have evaporated, but it cannot fade away because of my memory. In the same manner, when the Angel of Death visits my room, I may physically die and my body may cease to function, but I will remain. My memory will remain. My deeds will remain. So, I must ask myself before the angel knocks on my door, “How do I want others to remember me? What am I doing to make the world better once I am gone?”