Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: death

Can’t Save the Game

I was starting up the nightly Minecraft game. I flicked through the options and asked which texture pack we should use. Asha asked for the Plastic pack.

“Can’t use that one,” I told her.
“Why not?”
“It’s just a trial pack. We won’t be able to save what we build.”
“I don’t care.”
“But anything you make will be gone when we exit. Forever.”
“That’s okay,” she said. She was willing to spend her unredeemable time building something awesome, and then walk away and let it cease to exist. It reminded me of a couplet from the Bhagavad Gita:

You have the right to work,
but never to the fruit of work.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

At the end of the day, though, that’s just how it is. And not just in the obvious sense—that often we work really hard for something we don’t get. That’s how it is in a bigger sense.

I want my life to matter. We all do, I bet. We work hard to matter. We draw attention to ourselves and train long hours and take crappy jobs to make our mark. But no mark we can make will last. A billion years from now, nothing that I have done will remain anywhere at all. I build my castles, but when it’s time to quit, I cannot save the game. Seems depressing, eh?I-have-arrived-I-am-home

But not to Asha. She isn’t concerned about the fruit—saving the game. No, the game is in the building. She hasn’t learned that she’s supposed to suffer and strive and sacrifice today for a tomorrow that never seems to come.

I hope she never does.

Another thing about the past

IMG_20130531_100823There is an Event I anticipate.  It’ll be fun.  It draws close and my excitement grows.  And then it comes and I throw myself into it.  I enjoy and consume the Event, drinking my fill and even a little bit more.  Waves of happiness roll all over and it’s exactly how I had hoped it would be with the laughings and huggings and tomfooleries.  And then it ends.  And I’m the child who cries because he finished all his ice cream.  The past killed the Event.

That’s the thing about the past.  It consumes all Events, every single one.  And it’s good that it does, otherwise I’d be stuck.  I’d be static.  And I can’t think of a worse hell than boredom.  That’s why Alexander wept when there were no more lands to conquer.  Just what else was he supposed to bother staying alive for?

I don’t mourn when the night of wild laughter winds out.  I smile at the smoldering campfire the next morning.  At the challenge of making pancakes without spatula or bowl.  At the gentle pull of gravity on my shoulders.  I smile that the powerful play goes on, and I get to contribute a verse.

To Temia and Frances

My niece and my grandmother both died very recently.  The youngest and oldest members of the Cook family.

When a baby dies, the pain is harsh and visceral and immediate.  There is an unnatural flavour to it.  We are not wired to easily accept death in the generation below us.

When a grandmother dies, the loss is more spread out.  The end of an era.  It’s like having the house you’ve lived in all your life torn down over your head.

Things touch me in strange ways.  The way the funeral home is now a familiar place.  The way my niece’s death struck me when I noticed the shoes her body wore in the tiny coffin.  The way my grandmother’s voice floated to me while the congregation sang old hymns I grew up with.  The shifting, uncertain way I approached the pulpit to give my words at both funerals.  The scent of flowers, beautiful and arranged with love, giving a sense of life and renewal, even though they also were cut and would not live long.  The carrying of my grandmother’s coffin up and down the same stairs we used to carry her up and down when she went to church, laughing with her as we went and joked about how heavy her wheelchair was.

Memories of my grandmother.  How she gave us all Swiss Army Knives one Christmas, and we went home bleeding and grinning.  How her little white house on Spruceside Crescent as a sort of second home—a safe and warm place full of people and food and a kind of freedom that only grandparents can give.  The message she whispered as I laid her coffin down atop that deep, deep grave: “I lived well.  I loved freely.  I laughed loudly.  I made my home an open place, devoted to the making of peace and pies.  I trusted my grandchildren enough to give them knives for Christmas and I didn’t freak out when they cut themselves on them.  Remember my whole life, not just the last years since my stroke.  It’s not the last words or acts that matter.  It’s the whole thing.

The spark of light buried deep in the shock of my niece’s death.  The vibrant life that shone in her for six months, no less full for the quickness in which they were spent.  The focused and determined play my daughter had with her during the short time I was blessed to visit with her.  The serious depth that struck my son when he heard of it, took her photo off the fridge and cried as he held it—overcome with emotion at the age of seven.  The message that she whispered to me as I stood in the funeral home and stared at her shoes: “I lived well.  I never learned to waste life on things that gave me no joy.  I never learned to give up on my dreams.  I never learned cynicism or how to be judgmental.  I spent my short and beautiful life clinging to the people who loved me and letting them cling back to me.  I left the world undefeated by it—something very few people can say.

I have a deep and uncompromising contempt for death.  It is legitimate and true, I suppose, to view death as a doorway to the next grand adventure.  But that does not overcome the deep, visceral view that lives in each of us—death is a tragic and evil thing.  Death is the first and universal enemy of mankind.  And even if I look at death as a portal to another, better world, it is still my enemy.  It is still something that I will not enter willingly.  I will still rage, rage against the dying of the light.  And I will lose.  Death will take me, though not quietly.

But my grandmother Frances and my niece Temia remind me that the best way to spit in the face of death is not to fight it when it comes near, but to live while I’m alive.  Like they did.

I miss you, Grandma.  My memories of you bleed together, making my stories a sort of collage that only I can fully understand.  You were a pillar and a foundation.  My life is missing something without you in it.

I miss you, Temia.  The light in your eyes and the authentic smile on your lips.  The way you look either curious or excited in nearly every photo I look at.  You are an inspiration and I long to have some of that light and curiosity and excitement.

You both touched me in a deep place.  I’m sad you’re gone.  Thank you both for being awesome.

Life as Temple Run or Minecraft

     Have you ever felt like life is kinda like Temple Run?
     The game only just came out for Android. It barely runs on my phone, but I can’t stop playing it. You take on the role of Guy Dangerous, an explorer with a ridiculously impressive cardiovascular system. You start the game being chased by skull-faced monkeys through an unending temple maze filled with traps and stumps and fire-breathing statues. You run until you die.
     How do you win? You don’t. The maze goes on forever. No matter how skilled you are or how many hours you devote to the game, you always die.
     Is life like that? Is it just a Temple Run where I try to get the farthest I can before the skull monkeys eat me? Is it all just a game of ‘He who dies with the most toys wins’?
     I’ve been on a long, interesting spiritual journey since high school. I’ve gone from atheism to Christian fundamentalism to something else altogether. But one of the things that I’ve never been able to shake off is a deep and resentful contempt for death.
     As an atheist, death was a thing to be avoided at all costs because it was the end of everything. It was the bitter reality that threatened to swallow me whenever I gave it attention.
     As a fundamentalist, death was the gateway to hell for nearly everyone I knew (and, I thought, perhaps for me, as I feared sometimes my theologies would be too incorrect to get forgiveness). The final, unforgiving act of God.
     But now, what is it? Is it really the end?
     I feel like life is a little bit more like Minecraft. Some critics look at the game and scoff saying “It’s pointless!” And they refuse to play. But for others, there’s something special in it. There’s something special about building grand structures in an infinite world. About walking through gateways and slaying evil monsters. About reaching The End and destroying the vile Ender Dragon.
     And what happens when the monsters are all slain and the mighty works are all built? What then?
     I’m not totally sure, really. I can only think of two possibilities.
     Either the old, atheist Matt was right, and there is nothing beyond the grave. Not even darkness.
     Or, as I think these days, the Great Teacher was right when he spoke of another Kingdom that was not of this world. Of a place where Love gives life. Where life comes abundantly and where mankind is reconciled with the source of Love and Life. Where my acts of love and creation live on and rejoice with the other works of love and creation that we have made together with God.
     So I run, mostly confident that I’m not in a game that can only end in death. If I’m right, all my joy today is building toward an endless joy that will one day witness the death of death. If I’m wrong … I’ll never know.
     Keep creating.

Pacifism and My Violent Book

     I’m a pacifist. Not a passive-ist. A pacifist. I am against violence in all forms for any reasons. Strange, eh?

     I wrote a book that has a lot of violence in it. Bad guys killing and harming good guys. Good guys killing and harming bad guys. Alignment-unknown guys killing and harming … everyone. Blood and death and harm and stuff. It almost makes you wonder how I reconcile that with my beliefs.

     I also tend to enjoy media that has violence in it. Game of Thrones is probably my favourite show in TV right now. And if you’ve ever seen a more violence show, I’d be surprised. And I’d ask what kind of sick cable channel you are subscribing to. Most of the books I read have violence. Every video game I play involves blowing something up.

     So what gives, Matt? You some kind of ridiculous hypocrite or something?

     Probably. But not for that reason.

     I find violence reprehensible because of the suffering it causes and the damage it does to the violent’s soul. But I cannot deny that violence has been a part of the human experience ever since we crawled out of the goop. I’d be willing to bet that everyone has an ancestor who took lives through violence. It’s engrained in us. That’s one of the reasons most people find the idea of pacifism so repulsive.

     Art is not idealized life. It’s elevated life. Art (literature, paintings, performances, TV shows, etc) needs to show every true aspect of life. And one of the most basic and foundational truths about the lives we live, is violence and death. Like Hemingway said, “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.”

     A writer, or any other artist, has no right to keep from his or her reader those things he disagrees with. That’s one of the reasons why I find it very difficult to reader Christian novels. They are sterile. There is no shit, only poop. And it’s not poop that ever hits the fan.

     I hate violence in any situation. But it’s a part of life, so it needs to go in the stories I make. Just like I hate malice and conflict and suffering and sickness and cancer. These horrid things are all around us. The writer who leaves them out of his book had better have a good reason for it.

The State-Sponsored Murder of Love

     Jesus was killed.

     My tradition has always looked at his execution from an abstract, theological point of view. We talk about God getting stuck in a sort of cosmic loop-hole where his previous promise to kill sinners works against his desire to let them live, so he works out a deal with his son in which killing his son makes it so he can let sinners who understand this theological concept off the hook.

     But I find myself looking at it from a different point of view this year.

     Jesus was a different sort of fellow. He refused to accept the conventions of who was ‘us’ and who was ‘them’. He would befriend hookers and foreigners and heretics. He undermined the religious and civil establishment by commanding people to call no one father or teacher or master. He starting knocking the legs out under the power of the empire by telling people to love their enemies and to never repay evil for evil. He upset the commercial establishment by clearing the businessmen from the temple and by telling folks to share everything they had until there were no poor people left. He told people that the Utopian Kingdom of God was within their grasp.

     They had to kill him, of course.

     Not only that, they had to break his message.

     So now, instead of a Jesus who was willing to die before kill, we have a Jesus who blesses our soldiers and weapons manufacturers while condemning bartenders. It’s an easy thing to do. Watch.

     First, we take the premise from Romans 13 that the government is established by God. Then we remember that, while Jesus made it abundantly clear that our only attitude and actions toward our enemies should be love and kindness, God is allowed killing anyone he wants. So when the government tells us to kill, it’s okay! So long as you do it without hating the people in ‘your heart’, as Luther says, “Soldiers, as Christians, should indeed love those enemies – not hate them, hold malice against them, or mistreat captives or civilians – but they have an authorization to do what soldiers have to do.”

     And all the other things that led Jesus to the cross, we steer away from. Instead of eating with hookers and heretics, we rail against them. Instead of turning over the tables of unjust businessmen who use religion as a means of profit and oppress their workers, we support Walmart and Wall Street while condemning the people trying to change the system. Instead of forgiveness, we call for punishment. Instead of rehabilitation, we call for death. Instead of freedom, we set certain men as higher than ourselves, call them ‘government’ and put on fancy clothes and ribbons while we go off killing their enemies.

     That sort of Jesus never would have gone to a cross. He would have started a profitable career in politics.

     But the real love of Jesus threatens everything. It threatens our wealth and safety. It’s risky. It’s full of uncertainties. It’ll kill half the people who sign up for it. But it’s also the only way to life. Jesus proved it.


     Does entropy ever bother you?

     They say that all energy will eventually fizzle and turn useless. They say the universe will turn cold and all life and information and movement will cease. All the songs will be silenced. All the stories will be forgotten. Every trace of human wisdom, love, and hope will fade from the cosmos, leaving not even an echo behind. So it goes.

     The thought makes me shudder.

     It makes you shudder, too, even though you know you won’t be around to experience it. There is something deeply disturbing about end of all things. About the final death. It’s sick. It’s perverted. It’s madness.

     I think we’ve always seen it coming. The ancients knew that all good things come to an end. But they didn’t accept it. They couldn’t. They raged against it.

     The ancient seers flung out their prophecies, calling for the ultimate death of death. They claimed that all these decaying things around us would be reconciled and made well again. They spoke of a pinnacle of existence, better than the one we find ourselves in, where there is no entropy. They claimed that those who sought after glory, honor, and immortality would be a part of it.

     Sounds too good to be true.

     But, you know, it’s the madness of entropy that makes me think those prophets could be right. It’s the utter terror of the thought of nothingness that makes me think there could never be nothing. That makes me dare to hope that our stories will never fully fade away. That makes be wonder if death, indeed, will die.

     Eternity is bound up in the heart of Man. Does that suggest we are meant to dwell in a realm that does not decay?

     I think so.

     I may be wrong. It could be that this universe is all there is. It could be that when the last human fades and dies, all our spirit and love will die with him or her.

     Or perhaps the kingdom of heaven will come. And death will be brought to trial and done away with. And perhaps the stories and songs will never end and the sun will never set. And perhaps the weight of affliction of this dark world will not be worthy to be compared to the glory to be revealed on that day. And we will laugh and dance with those ancient prophets who searched the human and divine spirit to predict that glorious morning.

     Either way, what can we do but rage against the dying of the light?

     So it goes.

The Life You Always Wanted

     You’ve screwed up. So have I, I guess. That’s the way it goes, sometimes. What are you going to do about it?

     Usually we re-live it. We put our minds there and run through the screw-up again and again. So instead of screwing up once, we screw up everyday. The same screw-up. It sucks.

     Keep it up and you’ll die full of regrets.

     Ever wondered what it would be like to know you were going to die? People talk about the choices they’d make if they found out they had a terminal illness. People say they’d call up old friends and right old wrongs and tell off enemies and live life the way they’d always dreamed of living it. I don’t really get that.

     Because I am dying. And so are you. We’ve all been diagnosed with a terminal illness – mortality. No one beats it. 100% casualty rate.

     You know what I’d change in my life if I found out I had terminal cancer? Not much. To be honest, I’m already living the way I want to.

     I have a family that gives me nothing but joy. I am slowly but surely working toward my creative dreams. I am just about the happiest person I know.

     Because I know I’m dying.

     So I don’t pay much attention to the mistakes I’ve made. I don’t re-live them. I don’t whine about not having enough time to follow my dreams. Because I don’e have time to whine. I’m dying. And there’s nothing like living like you were dying.

Steve Jobs on Death

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

Bits of Flesh

var addthis_pub=”4a0af351783743a8″; It was the bits of flesh I noticed first.

The DVP was jammed almost as soon as we got on it. Sirens wailed in the distance behind us, coming quickly closer. Two police cars passed us on either shoulder.
“Car accident,” I muttered to Ruth and Jodi. We were taking Jodi to the Greyhound station downtown. She was going back to Quebec after staying with us for about a week and a half.
The traffic started to move and funnel into the left lane. I saw the police cars and looked for a sign of accident. The police were moving around quickly, putting up that yellow DO NOT CROSS tape and talking on radios. A couple cars had been pulled over to the side, but they didn’t seem damaged at all. There was no broken glass. No tire marks. I didn’t notice anything.

Until I noticed the bits of flesh.

Then it all came in quick. There was a body lying under a white sheet, bare feet exposed. I turned away quickly and felt sick. The girls gasped. It was then that I noticed where we were. Right under the Millwood bridge. Suicide.

I can’t find anything on the Internet about it. Who jumped? Why? Anyone care? What pushes someone so far? What makes a man think that non-life is better than life?

Ruth wondered aloud about what the jumper’s relatives must think now. Had they cared about him during life? Would they feel any guilt now that he was gone?

Depression is a dangerous thing. It’s too strong to fight with simple words. “Cheer up!” does nothing.

Toronto is a strange place. The highest and the lowest. The richest and the poorest. The happiest and the jumpers. What potential a large city has! What opportunity lies in dense population! What if we loved? What if we cared? What if we treated each other in a way that made it so there were no jumpers? What if we lived like Jesus told us to? What if we followed him?

Are we more than bits of flesh?

The next bridge down had a suicide net on it. I heard it cost about $2.5 million. Someone once commented that the money would be better spent on social services and suicide support lines. I doubt that would help. You know what would help? You know what would bring the suicide rate down? You know what would have stopped that nameless man from jumping?

Love. If someone loved him and knew his name. If we would just love people – all people – wouldn’t the world be better? What would it be like if Christ-love infected us all? What would it be like if we were all willing to love the unloved?

Paradise on earth?

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