Live—Death is Coming
by Derrick G. Jeter
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. is the famous son of the famous writer and physician, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. Born a Boston blue blood on March 8, 1841, Holmes served as a captain in the Union Army during the Civil War, seeing bloody action at Ball’s Bluff, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. After the war, he taught law at Harvard until he was appointed as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt elevated him to the United States Supreme Court, serving thirty years and receiving the moniker, “The Great Dissenter.”
Just before his retirement, on March 7, 1931, during a radio tribute in celebration of his ninetieth birthday, Holmes closed the time with a short speech. His conclusion, taken from a Latin poet, summed up his view of life: “Death plucks my ear and says: Live—I am coming.”1
This command, it seems to me, is appropriate as I look back on a year of living well and look forward to an unknown life in 2009. Holmes lived another four years before death plucked his life away, but there is no guarantee that you or I will live another four years; we may not live another four hours. Many began this year, 2008, deaf to death’s whisper, believing that the best years of their lives lay ahead of them, yet they are not with us at the end of the year—death plucked their lives too.
On the eve of another year, an evening rightly celebrated with revelry and kisses, it is also proper to think, at least for a moment, that we don’t know what tomorrow will unfold. On September 10, 2001, no one could have guessed how that terrible tomorrow would change the lives of 300 million nationally and the lives of 3,000 personally. But the heartrending change came. This is why James warns against arrogant presumption concerning the future.
And now I have a word for you who brashly announce, “Today—at the latest, tomorrow—we’re off to such and such a city for the year. We’re going to start a business and make a lot of money.” You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow. You’re nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing. Instead, make it a habit to say, “If the Master wills it and we’re still alive, we’ll do this or that.”2
Keeping this perspective in mind doesn’t defizzle the bubbles in my champagne. In fact, it makes me want to live all the more. Death plucks at our lives—live! Live intentionally so that when it comes time for you to die you won’t discover that you had not lived at all. “Live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . . put to rout all that [is] not life, cut a broad swath and shave close.”3 Life is too dear, too short no to live every moment.
So, as I peer into 2009 I have dreams—to sell a book idea and finish the manuscript, to begin another book, to travel more with my family, and to continue teaching. But I also want to live humbly before God—to submit that I will accomplish these dreams if He wills. As you begin a new year take to heart Hermann Hesse’s words:
Life passes like a flash of lighting
Whose blaze barely lasts long enough to see.
While the earth and the sky stand still forever
How swiftly changing time flies across man’s face.
O you who sit over your full cup and do not drink,
Tell me whom are you still waiting for?4
Wait for no one in 2009—live. Squeeze all you can out of life. Drink your cup deeply, savoring every drop. But live with humility, knowing that your life is a mist, a flash of lighting—here for a moment and then poof . . . gone. So make it your determined habit in 2009 to say, “If the Lord wills, I’ll live and live my dreams.”
1. Oliver Wendell Holmes, quoted in William Safire, ed. Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (New York: Norton, 1992), 488.
2. James 4:13–15, The Message.
3. Henry David Thoreau, Walden or, Life in the Woods (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1992), 81.
4. Hermann Hesse, Klingsor’s Last Summer, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 166.