On Dying Young

Earlier this week in class we discussed the short but meaningful and interesting life of playwright Lorraine Hansberry. She was a playwright who is responsible for A Raisin in the Sun, a key play in the history of American theatre. Tackling topics such as family, faith, loyalty, truth, gender roles, Pan-Africanism, and the generation gap, it was a hit on Broadway and is studied in schools and universities all across America. Unfortunately, Hansberry never had the chance to shine again, as her star flickered out in 1956, when she died of pancreatic cancer at age 34.

Her life was short, but it contained the depth that so many other people’s did not, and for that, it is a shame that she died so young. It leads you to ask yourself, “why? Why did Lorraine Hansberry have to go? Was this her only purpose in life? And why did we lose her when so many awful people are still sticking around?”

My views on death have changed over the years. Today, the rational part of my brain says that biological things are strictly biological, humans can be victims of spontaneity, and that everyone has to go sometime – if that didn’t happen, the world would be overpopulated with centenarians, or folks even older. When an older person dies, it seems more appropriate – they’ve had chances to make mistakes, have successes and failures, have relationships and children, and if they’re lucky enough, leave this world in the comfort of a bed, either a hospital’s or their own, regardless of whatever mental/physical conditions they may be suffering from. But the one thing that always stops me in my tracks is when I hear about someone young being killed or dying of disease. Especially someone my age or younger. I always ask myself, “why am I still here when so many promising young people aren’t anymore?”

One of my earliest memories of someone my own age dying was in elementary school. A news story came on one night about a local girl who’d put an ad in her apartment complex’s newsletter with her name and number, offering babysitting services. Upon arrival at the home of what she thought was a family hiring her for the night, it was all a hoax, a set-up for this strange guy, who had no children, to murder her. I don’t remember her name, but I remember the freckled face and long blonde hair that stared at me from inside the television set, and her list of accomplishments: straight As, basketball and soccer player, beloved neighborhood babysitter, and overall, a “good girl.” She was “good people.” Since then, so many people that I know of (or in some cases, know personally) have left us at a young age. To cite some recent examples, whether it’s teenage makeup artist Talia Castellano succumbing to cancer, or thirty-something-but-playing-a-high-schooler actor/singer Cory Monteith overdosing on drugs, the reaction’s always the same.

“What a shame.”

But is it really? Realistically, some people do die young, with or without their consent or control. Death is final and it’s always horrible when it occurs, and sometimes it’s not preventable. I’m not saying that people who died young deserved to die, but in my opinion, maybe it was their “time.” Maybe their death is a way to remember them at their finest moments, and that had they lived any longer, they might have caused pain or hurt to others. For example, the babysitter could’ve grown up and blown up her college campus or assassinated a politician, and Cory Monteith could have been killed in a back-alley drug deal gone bad, or murdered someone under the influence of drugs. Then again, it could be the complete opposite. We will never know what they would’ve done, and we’ll never find out. And I guess that’s the way the world works, the way that God works. He shields and protects us all our lives in so many ways, from allowing us to digest food without choking, vomiting, or exploding; allowing us to get from point A to point B safely, whether it’s on wheels, air, sea, or our own feet; for having that car come to a juddering stop when you run across the street at the last minute, or having you step out of the way just before the piano falls on your head. In a sense, maybe death was a way of protecting them from having a worse fate, or from harming someone else later on down the line.

On the opposite side, some young people shouldn’t be alive after what happened to them, but my some miracle, have remained alive, to serve another purpose. Their time isn’t quite done here yet, and they’re the living proof.

Case in point: Malala Yousafzai.

On 9 December 2012, she was traveling home from school on the bus when two men from the Taliban stormed on, shooting her point blank in the face as well as at her other friends. Miraculously, her friends escaped mostly unhurt, and Malala herself lapsed into a coma, during which time her life was in the balance, with things going either way. She woke up in a hospital in England some time later, and slowly regained her strength and mobility to a full recovery. After she resurfaced, she resumed her activities as an activist for education and peace, and was reportedly a nominee (and a favorite) to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

She didn’t win, but she won her life back.

I watched tonight’s 20/20 special on her and her story, and she said something akin to “death didn’t want to take me yet.” While I wouldn’t put it quite as bluntly as that, she’s right. There’s gotta be something more in the works for her. If she was meant to be some sort of child martyr, it would’ve happened. Children have died before, whether they were activists or just your everyday kid on the school bus.

But Malala didn’t. And that’s a fact.

No matter how murky the story may be, or by whose account was most accurate, the proof is right there in the flesh. Malala didn’t die. It was not her time. Nobody knows if she’ll live to be 19 or 90, but there’s a reason that she’s made it to 16 with all of her faculties, and only some internal and external scars on the way. Just because a person has a strong personality, doesn’t mean that their body chemistry and all their cells and organs are strong too. No matter how strong your will is, you can’t take that force and say “hey bones, tissues, organs, cells…heal up, because it’s time to save the world!” What your body does is not up to you. It is beyond human control and moreover, human comprehension.

When a disaster happens, a common sentiment that arises is that “because of X, I can’t possibly believe that there is a God.” But not enough people look at a situation like Malala Yousafzai and say themselves, “because of this, I can’t possibly believe that there’s not a God.” I am of the latter opinion. Looking at pictures of Malala, reading about her story, and seeing her on my computer and TV screens, makes me think of nothing other than this: God is. Growing up, I learned not to image God as an old man, an old woman, a king, a queen, any person or thing, so I wondered – who is God, if we don’t, can’t, and shouldn’t know what God looks like? I also grew up in the 90s, so my mental playlist is totally queuing up Joan Osborne hardcore right about now, but to get back to the point, I just think that God is. Not exists, but is. In outer space, right here on my couch in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, or just somewhere. Existence is a human concept. Talking about religion is something pretty personal to me, because I’m still figuring things out myself, and I don’t like to impose my views on others, but I feel like I want to make some sort of statement. Something like…even if I can’t see, I believe. Because…why not? Cold hard facts aren’t changed by belief, At the end of the day, Malala is still standing, still speaking, and still working for what she believes in.

Malala Yousafzai comes from a world that is further along in time than Lorraine Hansberry, but less advanced in terms of wealth, rights for women, and educatoinal opportunity. But the facts are the facts. Something was meant to happen to Lorraine Hansberry that was not meant for Malala.

Lorraine Hansberry, your words are an incredible inspiration for us all, and I am so grateful that at least we have that extant sliver of your intelligence and creativity. Even though you died young, you did more in that short time than some people who manage to live into old age.  You must have been destined to do just what you were sent here to do, and then rejoin God to give a full and thorough report.

Malala Yousafzai, your words are an incredible inspiration for us all, and I am so grateful that we have only seen a sliver of your intelligence and creativity. You are meant to do more, and now you have that chance, so go do it. Don’t stop for anyone or anything. Make the world a better place because that’s what you’re here to do. I know you can. I wish I had the courage, strength, and drive that you have, and maybe one day I’ll get there myself. You survived what should have been the end, so pick up where you left off and keep going. I love you, the world loves you, and somewhere out there, a force – called God, if you like – loves you too and sent you back on a mission. You are destined for great things with this great thing called life and free will to do with it what you wish, so make the most of each day.

That last sentence isn’t just for you though, it’s for everyone who’s reading this.

Oh, and Malala – if somehow, God, or the universe, or the force, could send you on a mission to end to all the conflicts in Israel, the Middle East and South Asia,  that would be nice too.

And if God could send you on Ellen along the way, that would be even better.

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One thought on “On Dying Young

  1. Pingback: So SO Much Better | That's So Jacob

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