There’s a scene in Gravity where Sandra Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, decides to let death take her. She’s sitting in a cramped vessel, with the blackness and cold of space just outside her window. In front of her is a dashboard of lights and screens. She turns off the oxygen and cries, lonely and afraid. After a long fight, this is her end. There will be no more of her soon. I realized, sitting in my seat at the movie theater as I watched Ryan Stone come face to face with death, that I’m going to die. I am going to die and I’m not going to like it.
It’s a suffocating feeling.
“You only live once.”
That’s actually a very sad statement to come back to, again and again and again. It’s an awful thing to live just once, and to be reminded of it constantly. The way it’s wielded today, to encourage people to kiss, drink, jump, and dive, seems almost disrespectful. Living just once should never have been turned into a motivational phrase to do something trivial. As if doing anything could fight the terror of death when it comes out of hiding. Truly, it was never hiding. We just forgot it was there.
“You only live once” takes on a different meaning when spoken at a funeral, perhaps that of a six-year-old girl whose parents are left to wonder who she would have been. No one would whisper that into the parents’ ear as a consolation. It would only be a reminder that they will never feel her warmth again. Strange how a phrase used to fight death has no place in death’s presence.
It has no place because living once is a tragedy—it simultaneously makes life feel sacred and meaningless, magnificent and inane. Beautiful while the flame is still flickering, loud when the flame is stamped out and darkness enshrouds. That darkness is enough to make you wonder if the flame was ever there. For all the fight that the phrase might give us, it just becomes one more thing to be devoured in death’s presence.
Death will devour each of us somewhere down the road in an inescapable chase. We can’t all be like Nicholas Flamel, with a philosopher’s stone to keep us going until we’re ready for the great unknown. Death will come when it comes, young or old, and it seems there’s no right time for it. It will all feel terribly wrong until feelings cease. It will feel terribly wrong especially if life was good. And then to not feel…what does that mean?
Life is filled with so much want, and so much of that want is left as a deep yearning throughout. Yearning for love, for beauty, for completeness in each moment. For all the love and satisfaction we encounter in our want, there is still unimaginable pain in our unmet needs. I imagine at the moment of death (if we have a chance to reflect), no matter the wonderful life that happened before, there will always be a yearning for more. Good, by its very nature, seems to only create a desire for more goodness, and bad seems to create the same, even at the mouth of oblivion.
Ryan Stone doesn’t die. She will someday, but not then. I was so disturbed by that moment, however, that by the end, when she takes her first steps on land, and the audience is clearly meant to feel some kind of invigorating rush of “she made it, and so will we!” I was still stuck on “I’m going to die I’m going to die I’m going to die.”
I am going to die, and everyone along with me, and “you only live once” is disturbing.
Because there is just too much joy and too much pain in life, all so deeply felt. What “you only live once” gets wrong isn’t the wording, but the sentiment—the sentiment being that we should live uninhibited and without shame.
“You only live once” should call us to a more profound respect of what it means to be alive, and be alive so briefly. It should be a reminder of mystery and pain. If everyone is going to die, no one deserves anything at all but the greatest love we can offer them. The phrase shouldn’t call us to live for ourselves, but to live for others, and joyfully at that, because death is far too near, and there is not enough time to be joyful.
Because, truly, we have no choice but to live with joy in the midst of death.
Will Montei is currently in pursuit of a Masters in Teaching at Seattle Pacific University. He has been writing for the post calvin since it began in 2013.