The headline in The New York Times was startling, at least for someone like me in the field of religious gerontology. It read: “Life expectancy in the U.S. fell precipitously in 2020 and 2021, the sharpest two-year decline in nearly 100 years, largely because of Covid.”
The new findings come as life expectancy in the U.S. continues to fall, in contrast with much of the rest of the world. In 2021, life expectancy – 76.3 years – decreased for a second consecutive year. It sat at 78.8 years in 2019 and 77 years in 2020. Even post-pandemic, life expectancy is not bouncing back in the U.S.
We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. The shortness of life – whether 76 or 106 – is something we all face.
We should do the most with what we have today. A friend once described our shortness in life by saying: Life is for living and then, we die. An interesting but perplexing thought!
Many years ago, I taught an undergraduate course titled Death and Dying at Lycoming College (a UM-related college in Williamsport, Pennsylvania). Many students were in nursing and pre-ministerial degree programs. The task of the course was a rather daunting one. I asked the class how they wished to die. The answers confirmed what I expected to hear: quickly, without pain, in my sleep, after a long, fulfilling life, etc.
Don’t we all wish for this? After all, dying is such a waste of good living!
Reflecting on death can be construed as morbid by many people. Although death is inevitable and universal, many individuals and families are uncomfortable talking about and planning for end-of-life discussions. In our culture, people generally avoid intimate reflections on death. We make jokes and use humor to cover up our unease with the topic. Some people avoid writing their Last Will and Testament, just to forego any thought or hint of death. Perhaps this is because facing our own death is what many of us ultimately fear most.
We live in a death-denying culture and most of us would prefer not to think about death and dying. We shove it out of our minds, speak about it only in muffled tones, and keep it at a great distance. But not to think of death is not very smart because we all have a date with it. Somewhere, sometime, and every day we walk one step, one breath away from it. Every night, sleep is a rehearsal for death.
The fear of death has a certain purposeful quality to it. If we had no fear or dread of it for ourselves and our loved ones, this world would have been depopulated a long time ago. There is something within us powerfully appointed to keep life going, and the fear of death is part of that.
At Easter we celebrate life over death with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection assures Christians of eternal life and frees us from the deception that this earthly life is all there is. Although death is a great mystery, our faith teaches us to face death and not to be afraid. Rather than desperately searching for answers, Easter provides us with the understanding that the open heart can fully embrace what the thinking mind finds ungraspable.
As the Apostle Paul proclaims, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being, for as all died in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (I Corinthians 15:20-22).
Easter gives us more than hope, it gives us reason to face death without anxiety. It gives us reason to live life fully and unafraid. Living without fear means we can choose to accept God’s wisdom and engage in lovingkindness as we endlessly deepen our understanding of the timeless mystery of life and death that we each embody. This Easter is a great time to ask yourself what the message of your life has been to date and what you want it to be in the future, however short or long this life may be for you.
Dr. Richard Gentzler, director, oversees ENCORE Ministry’s mission of providing older adult ministry resources, leader training, and consultations. For more information, email Gentzler at email@example.com or call 615-400-0539.