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I was puzzled by my reaction as I watched the sportscaster wave goodbye to the camera. I rarely watched his sportscast, but like many of the people in the Washington, D.C., area, I was moved by news of his death. I listened as radio talk-show hosts devoted entire mornings to the story. Local newspapers gave him a week's worth of obituaries. His station ran a half-hour memorial program—the show I was watching. He waved to the camera, walking, symbolically, into the shadows. It was ironic that in a city dubbed the murder capital of the nation, in which victims of violent crime die every day, the passing of one 44-year-old-man would cause such a stir.
As people called talk shows to express their shock, I heard a refrain: "It was so unexpected. He was so young, in such great health, and then all of a sudden . … I just can't believe it."
Perhaps what affected us was not just who died, but death itself. It came as an unexpected intruder, reminding us that death does not always wait until people are in their nineties. What bothered the city—what bothered me-was the rudeness of death's intrusion. Many people occasionally sneak a peek at the obituaries and look at the ages of those who have died. But when we see somebody our own age, or even younger, we wince. We are forced to admit that death does not have to ask our permission. Death is coming. Every day is somebody's last.
But we prefer to ignore or deny this realization. In this we are not unlike previous generations. It was the teaching of the ancients, in fact, that helped me to gain perspective on death. The classical spiritual-life writers found great spiritual benefit in looking death in the face, seizing its reality, and making it their servant. They used death to teach them how to live.
Francois Fenelon, a seventeenth-century French mystic who wrote the classic "Christian Perfection," spoke eloquently of the denial of death: "We consider ourselves immortal, or at least as though [we are] going to live ...