“Life is not safe. A man might spend his whole time on earth staying safe in a basement, and in the end, he still dies like everyone else.”
– Thomas Hao, Frost Burned
Mercy Thompson series, Patricia Briggs
Thomas Hao is a minor character when he is introduced, but he plays his part in the novel’s climax. When he says this, it is to a man who is a bit upset at how his wife put herself in danger when she might have avoided it. She explains that she couldn’t allow an evil man to do as he wished, or she would have felt just as bad. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil, after all, is for good men and women to do nothing. To stand aside. To try and be safe. Hao offers the above words in support of her explanation, because, as much as the man he is speaking to wants only to know that his wife is safe, alongside everyone else he loves, he has to accept that there is no real safety in the world.
Even if one were, somehow, improbably, able to avoid every single danger in the entirety of the world, eventually they would just die anyway. Life is thus, by very nature, inherently unsafe, because it ends. Always.
That speaks to me especially strong right now. I’ve commented on life and death before: how it makes us all equal, in the end; the importance of our choice in meeting our fate; how there is such a choice, and it echoes in how we live before we die; more recently, how the cycle of life and death is always there. This, however, speaks directly, and at an appropriate moment, to how we kind of just need to learn how to deal with it.
Death is simply a fact of life.
It’s scary, because so much about it is unknown, and we have the ability to think about the things we don’t know. And it can be very painful, both to endure the death of a loved one, and, eventually, when it happens to us, as it will. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.
That’s something we’ve forgotten, I think, especially in the more advanced of Western cultures. We grew up on Disney, among other things, which always presents death as something dire. It’s the well-deserved fate of the villain, and a tragedy when it happens to someone good. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost our ability to accept death, and as it’s fact of life, refusing to accept it at all does not serve us.
Now, I’m not going to say that we shouldn’t try to stay alive, or save the lives of those around us. No, not at all. The reality of death is part of what gives life so much value. But it also gives value to not just staying alive, but to living well and happily. In that sense, it is actually quite possible to take the virtue of valuing life too far, and make it a vice.
I am reminded of a story about a very rich man, who was very selfish and stingy and valued his wealth above everything else. One night, he dreamed that a voice told him, “Someone will inherit you before you die.” He took that to mean someone would come and take his wealth from him while he still lived, and he spent the entire night (and then some) rushing all around, trying to make sure everything his money was invested in was secure and safe. That got very tiring very quickly, so he sold everything he had (which was a lot) and invested the entire sum of money it was worth into a single precious, massive jewel, which he clutched tightly to his person as if his very life depended on it. Then… he tripped, and the jewel, with all the wealth it represented, slipped from his grasp and into a river. It was eventually found by a very poor man, who was suddenly not very poor anymore.
The rich man valued what was his, and that is not a bad thing. But he valued it so much that it consumed him, he made a foolhardy decision, and lost everything as a result.
It’s good to value life, but it’s possible to value life too much.
One need only look to any coward for proof that one can value one’s own life too much.
Sadly, it can be taken even further.
I look around and see people panicking over a virus, and that panic does not serve us. I see people willing to go to extremes, without questioning, in order to preserve the lives of others. That is not a bad thing, to care for others. But even this – yes, even this most noble of all virtues! – can be overdone, and turned against itself, as people follow rash, ill-informed decisions (driven by an agenda they know nothing of) which can and will have (and is already having) dire consequences, far worse than the virus itself would ever do.
A solution that is worse than the problem is no solution at all.
It is possible to value life so much that, like the rich man clinging too tightly, we end up losing everything we hoped to protect.
Even though all we want is for people to be safe.
But life is not safe.
It never will be.
It literally cannot be.