You Only Die Once
YOLO ("you only live once") is the acronym du jour. You may have come across it on Twitter (#yolo), in a Drake song, or tattooed on actor Zac Efron's hand. Lampooned as often as it is championed, the trendy motto conjures up a familiar, hedonistic sensibility of living for the moment, consequences be damned.
N. D. Wilson's Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent (Thomas Nelson) isn't exactly an apologetic for YOLO, but it is cut from similar cloth. Technology, globalism, and social media give our contemporary world an especially palpable sense of ephemerality. YOLO, aided by a mortality-denying consumer culture, translates this into narcissistic YouTube tomfoolery, "sexting," and SnapChat (the new no-paper-trail social media fad). But Wilson wants us to lead lives that lean into time and run toward death, after the model of Christ. Death is not a shadow to be feared or an abstraction to put out of our minds. Rather, it is a part of God's creational good, a beautiful reminder of the brevity of breath and the urgency of life.
Like Wilson's well-received Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl (2009), Death by Living is a hybrid of memoir, apologetics, theology, philosophy, and lyrical prose, at once irreverent and worshipful, comical and elegiac. But where Tilt-A-Whirl focused on a way of seeing, Death by Living focuses on "a way of living, a way of receiving life."
"I am a man attempting to paint another picture of the same wonderful world, but I have turned my easel around," writes Wilson. "I've taken my best shot at the sunrise. Now for the sunset."
The thesis of Death by Living is that Christians should live fully in every moment, with the horizon of mortality always in view. Live hard. Enjoy every moment. Get blisters. And on your deathbed, receive death as the grace it was intended to be—as the merciful experience of completion, the knowledge that a good race has been run and a good fight fought. For Wilson, "living is the same thing as dying," and "living well is the same thing as dying for others."
Death by Living, while very much a "how shall we then live?" guidebook, isn't a collection of feel-good tips for "your best life now!" Wilson begins with the assumption that suffering, struggle, and death are not hiccups in the human story, but central to who we are. Each person is born "for the fight, to be forged and molded—under torch and hammer and chisel—into a sharper, finer, stronger image of God."
At times Wilson's prose sounds reminiscent of John Eldredge's Wild at Heart, with its emphasis on living hard and embracing adventure. But ultimately, the book is less a brief for recovering rugged religion than a reflection on human finitude in a world where time seems always to be tugging us to and fro, and where the best moments are frustratingly fleeting.
We shouldn't "resent [these] moments simply because they cannot be frozen," but instead learn to praise God simply for continuing to give them so excessively. "Sunset after sunset makes it hard to remember and hold just one. Smell after smell. Laugh after laugh." So what can you do? "Enjoy life now. And now. And now. Before the nows are gone. See the gifts. Savor the food, knowing that you will have to swallow."