Culture At Large

Joss Whedon's death-defying graduation speech

Todd Hertz

Joss Whedon is a bad, bad man. At least, that’s the common phrase fans use to describe him when he breaks their hearts. In projects like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Serenity, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and The Avengers, Whedon loves to abruptly kill off beloved characters to force his audience to deal with the horrific realness of death.

Apparently, he likes to do the same in commencement speeches. On Sunday, Whedon told graduates at Wesleyan University, “What I’d like to say to all of you is that you are all going to die.”

Enjoy your graduation cake, kids!

Whedon went on to explain that an important part of living - of being your best self, of changing the world, of realizing your dreams - is holding in balance a crucial tension: as we live, we are dying.

“Now comes the black diamond mogul run to the grave,” Whedon said. “And the weird thing is your body wants to die. …You want to be a politician, a social worker, an artist. Your body’s ambition: mulch. I believe these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have.”

Our culture of youth-centeredness, comfort and distraction causes us to stray from the focused living that death’s urgency inspires.

Whedon’s words echoed a theme that’s resonated with me recently. Last week, 18-year-old Zach Sobiech died of a form of bone cancer which mostly strikes children. Sobiech had become an inspiration online after he posted his cheerful song, “Clouds,” on YouTube. The song caught the attention of Rainn Wilson’s website Soul Pancake, which posted a short documentary about Sobiech in early May.  

In it, a small moment stands out. Zach’s Catholic mom, Laura, says, “That’s actually one of the blessings of cancer: You kinda come out of denial.” 

Terminal illness often cuts through life’s distractions to highlight what matters. And the “get busy living or get busy dying” message is not new. But what strikes me in these recent situations is the implied or direct assertion that we need reminding. That we live in denial with safe, comfortable wool pulled over our eyes. That our culture of youth-centeredness, comfort and distraction causes us to stray from the pointed and focused living that death’s urgency inspires.

One could argue we’re anything but sheltered from death. It’s all too common, all too real for us to be in denial, right? Many of us have even had seasons where it feels like we are bathing in death. Our loved ones suffer. Our Twitter feeds and newscasts are filled with death in Oklahoma, London, Boston, Bangladesh. But perhaps it is the commonality of death that makes us numb. We shut it out. We hold it at arm’s length.

Reminders to consider our delicacy are not new. In fact, Whedon’s words have a flavor of John Donne’s Meditation 17, written in 1623. While Whedon, an atheist, stopped at merely recognizing that we better get to it because the clock’s ticking, Donne contends that every death bell is a call to reflect on our own death. We ought to, he wrote, use the sufferings of others to learn to live better so we are better prepared for death - and for eternal life beyond it.

And written long before Donne, God’s Word clearly instructs that life is fleeting, that we are like withering grass and life is a mere breath or a brief shadow. These words of Scripture used to sound callous to me, threatening and depressing. But I am now beginning to see them as a warning light so that I don’t lose balance, don’t fall into denial.

And I am realizing this truth means freedom. Escaping denial, as Zach Sobiech’s mom said, means “life is richer. Everything means more. Beauty is more beautiful.” Long after I am mulch.

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