What Does it Mean to be Alive?
I can count on one hand the amount of times this has happened to me. I’m just sitting there minding my own business when suddenly I feel as if I’m watching myself, as if the rubber band of my imagination breaks and my consciousness is left spread out in space. I feel like I’m being watched by myself, that I’m more security camera than human. And it’s in those rare moments that I glimpse the truth about my life, about my existence. I see Life for what it really is, and I’m so astonished I can hardly breathe. And yet, I do (breathe). And keep breathing. And eventually forget all about it.
What it feels like to ask this question—what does it mean to be alive?—is like being on The Price is Right, where Life is behind door number 1, and who-knows-what is over there behind doors 2 and 3. For a moment you imagine that Life isn’t necessary, that it’s optional…in which case there are other options to existing, to being created and living and breathing oxygen, to using language and thoughts to express yourself in time and space. Things don’t have to be the way they are…at some point in the past they weren’t. My little human psyche didn’t come into existence until the year 1992 AD, far after, well, everything had happened. What in the world kind of world do we live in where this happens and we don’t all trip over ourselves wondering Why? I mean really, really ask yourself, what are the alternatives to my existing—at all? What if God hadn’t created me? What if I didn’t even exist—ever?
We are so used to being alive, so used to using Life to listen to our parents and loved ones tell us we are beautiful and smart, to run and eat and laugh, that we hardly ever stop to consider what this Life is we’ve been given. We all take it for granted. Granted. Like a trust-fund, granted down to us from above. Like spoiled, rich kids, we expect Life to always be there to serve us and our pleasures, so instead of valuing it, we use it to find value in everything else less valuable. We are selfish about Life, expecting it, never once considering what a real kind thing Yahweh God did for us in creating us and giving us existence in the first place. We exist. Of course we exist: why wouldn’t He have created pretty-little me? Since we don’t understand Life, we don’t get its value and its intentionality. It’s an undeserved blessing disguised by our inverted consciousness to seem a debt. But what is it?
Life begins, for us, when we are conceived in the womb of our mother human. We Christians believe Life, in humanity, began in time and space at the geographical point called the Garden of Eden when one day Yahweh God, the One-who-exists-on-His-own, gathers Himself up and forms man out of the dust of the ground. Then He winds up and…breathes on Him. He creates life, from nothing, from breath. And ever since, Life is just passed on through what appears to be physical causes, from mother to child. The further we get from that day, the more removed we feel from His active hand in causing our life, and the more independent we imagine ourselves. Adam came from God, Cain came from Eve, and you and I—we came from a hospital. And our story holds, until death.
We are born without an idea of death, little naïve angels broken, without realizing their brokenness. Growing up happens when we discover, with great horror, who we are: we aren’t Captain America, Florence Nightingale, or Oliver Twist, and our parents aren’t the heroes we thought they were. The shadow of death passes over us all as we sit there in middle school or high school, and Life begins to slowly pale. Instead of using Life to discover fun and joy and more Life, we begin the laborious process of discovering death, and our limitations. That process of growing up disenchants us: we aren’t the most beautiful, powerful, wonderful, kind, courageous person to exist after all. Life isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. We thought Life was good and it turns out to be temporary, fickle, setting us up for a final and bone-shattering fall. We adolescents come to find ourselves in the world, our limitations and time-spans, and in finding ourselves, forever lose eternity.
Life, if we can really grip it and see it for what it is, carries with it an obvious-as-the-nose-on-your-face obligation. Life is absolutely charged with purpose and intentionality, but when you don’t see that, it becomes boring and, shockingly, banal. It’s like the difference between reading a novel written by someone you know vs one written by a random, faceless name. Reading your friend’s book, you are alive, eyes pealed, and you shake your head and laugh at the choices he makes in writing it. Why would he have made the main character a woman…with red hair, and a peg leg for heaven’s sake? What’s the deal with her lazy boyfriend who makes fun of her (and it)? Why does she stay with him—especially when her neighbor, a strong handsome man, has a crush on her? Every piece of the story was put there by your friend in a laborious process of creativity, and it’s like a game figuring it all out, putting all the pieces of his brain back in order to see what the puzzle says. But when the story was written by someone else, we tend to overlook those and force it to prove itself worth our time. We love our friend, and that makes us more alive, more receptive, but we could care less about the faceless name, and that makes us more dead. In love we become more alive, and Life becomes more potent in us.
In the same way, Life carries with it intentionality. The goodness and truth and beauty of Life are inherently better than evil and lies and deformity. Life is better than death, and whatever increases Life is better than what decreases it. It’s all very clear.
Until, in the process of growing up, Life intoxicates us, and we get so drunk on it we forget reality. Instead of loving Life, we love ourselves, the pleasures we have because of Life. We love ourselves so much we prostitute Life at the bed of our pleasures while great, godly, courageous men love Life so much they lose it. We, being alive, can’t seem to imagine ourselves dead (or non-existent), and so death, to us who are living, isn’t real. And yet, the most real thing we will ever experience is the last drops of Life in those final moments as we lay dying.
But if we can. If we can muster up the courage to face our own deaths, to imagine what Life would be like without us, what it would be like to have never existed—if we can learn to love Life so much we give it up, we can find the core meaning of life and begin to live in the proper perspective: as a beggar given riches instead of a trust-fund kid given a limit.
Because Life, in its proper, pure form, is limitless. Yahweh God created Life, and He sustains it. After the Fall, He promised to provide a way around death, through death, into eternal life. He kept His promise in the person and work of Jesus, who came as a man and confronted death itself, face-to-face. One day his friend, Lazarus, dies. And he lays in the grave for four days, and his family—Mary and Martha—are devastated. But God-in-flesh, Jesus, takes Martha and says to her, “I am the resurrection and the Life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” And Jesus falls to his knees and weeps for his dead friend, and then gives him Life again, just to prove He can.
What does it mean to be alive? I don’t know. But I do know this. To be alive means to be bearers of an infinite gift, to be created from nothing as part of God’s great novel He’s writing about Himself. Life is created by God for God, and we are simply humble recipients. Death, or the end of Life, is possible because of the Fall, but Jesus has conquered death so that death no longer has power over His redeemed. Those without Him are enslaved to Life, doomed to the life-sucking death of self-worship and self-focus, always grabbing at it with their grubby hands, complaining about its limits. We who are in Christ are set free to live Life to the fullest, to love it so much we die for it, because Christ has won. It’s not up to us to defeat death or guard Life—it’s our job to spend it.