Picture a world where, at birth, you are hurled off a cliff – a really, really high cliff, so that it takes a lifetime to reach the bottom.
You would “grow up” on the way down (if you can imagine such a thing) moving through the stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.
Because you had always been falling, you wouldn’t be afraid of it. After those first few startling moments, you would get used to it and then began to enjoy it: that wonderful feeling of weightlessness, the wind in your hair, the ability to swoop and dive.
Everybody else in this world would be falling with you, so you wouldn’t be alone. You might even join hands with someone else and choose to fall together for days, for years or even for the rest of your life.
Some people would find that if they flapped their arms really hard, they could slow their descent slightly (the same people you see running on the treadmill at Gold’s Gym).
Others would get bored and go into a nose dive to speed things up (the same people who live so carelessly and recklessly now).
But the one thing everybody would know is that there was no way to stop falling altogether or to start falling up instead of down. Eventually everybody – everybody – would hit bottom.
And everybody would know it.
Which is different from our world, where people often seem surprised by their own mortality, by the very idea that they could get sick and die.
“Why?” they ask. “Why me?”
If we lived in that other world, I might say (while falling beside them), “Well, just look around you. Everybody is falling. Everybody is going to hit bottom eventually.”
But in this world they know that some people hit bottom sooner than others, and it doesn’t seem fair, and they want to know why.
“I don’t know why,” I say at last. “And you’re right – it doesn’t seem fair. But back to my original point: everybody is falling, and everybody is going to hit bottom eventually.”
And there is some comfort in that, isn’t there? We are not alone in our mortality. Everybody else is doing it with us.
It makes you want to join hands with those others and warn them not to get too close to the cliff, and then do everything you can – together – to enjoy the ride: that wonderful feeling of weightlessness, the wind in your hair, the ability to swoop and dive.
You could hope, as we all do, that when the end comes, you won’t see it coming, that it will happen instantly, painlessly and then be over with.
You might even hope, as some of us do (and not without reason), that the end is not the end at all, that it is, in so many ways –
– just the beginning.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.