Death’s Boundary

I have been thinking, on and off, over the last year about the vanity and futility of life in this creation, as Solomon in Ecclesiastes and Paul in Romans 8 speak of it. The most obvious marker of that futility, especially for Solomon, is death. Death is the great equalizer. Death puts all our pretensions to shame. Rich, poor, ugly, beautiful, famous, infamous; all the human distinctions are leveled by the coffin and the grave.

That boundary of death can produce opposite reactions: a feeling of worthlessness and despair on the one hand; a you-only-live-once hedonism on the other. Both of these have a selfishness at their root. It is hard for me to see how they could avoid it. Either you are forced to produce some sort of legacy that lives on with your memory after you die, or you reject anything except trying to suck all the marrow out of this life. Both are exhausting, and as Solomon recognized, they often do not work as we plan. Our illusions of control are taken from us in sickness and in death.

But at its best, the recognition of death’s approach can shuffle the cards of our priorities. We can learn to focus, for example, on the people who are closest to us, who evoke a love within us out of proportion with all naturalistic and materialistic expectations. This is the main theme of Don’t Make Me Go (2022; releasing today on Amazon Prime. Thanks to the Brehm Center at Fuller Seminary, the advanced screening was made available through Amazon Screenings.)

Don’t Make Me Go is both a road-trip movie and a coming-of-age movie. It has some of the tropes of both, but it is sufficiently layered to keep it from being a cliché. John Cho as Max and Mia Isaac as his daughter, Wally, are excellent. Their chemistry as father and daughter is apparent and fully realistic. Essentially, the plot is simple: Max is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The doctor tells him that without surgery he has one year to live. Or they can do surgery, and there is only a 20% chance that they are able to remove the entire tumor without serious complication or death. When Max finds out that his twenty-year high school reunion is happening in New Orleans, he decides to drive across the country in hopes of introducing Wally to her mother, who left them for Max’s high school best friend.

The film does very well depicting the relationship of a teenager on the verge of adulthood with her single father (I felt in my bones the scenes where he is teaching her to drive). Wally is at the point where she is not simply going to accept what her father says about his actions or motivations. He realizes this along the way, and is forced to be honest about things he would rather not tell her. Intelligent and intuitive, she is figuring out her own relationships, but not without the pitfalls of modern teenage life. Her father, for reasons she does not understand until late in the story, wants to teach her everything she needs to know as an adult, while she assumes they still have lots of time to figure it all out.

There is a twist in the film that I am not going to give away, but the central theme is that death defines the boundaries of life, so what are you going to do with the time you’re given? Not everyone is given a time-table for the likelihood of death, which means that we ought to consider how we are living right now. It seems a truism to say that death is the boundary of life. Apart from the Christian assumption that this life, lived in this creation, is like the shadow to the substantial person, there is something disconcerting to me about marking time based on death. Memento mori, and all that, but for the Christian, that is in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, not simply our own death.

Don’t Make Me Go touches, especially in what is essentially an epilogue to the film, on what it means to live a full life. Maybe what is difficult is the impossibility of measuring that. “Full,” at least in terms of a life, rather than a glass or a gas tank, is a slippery measurement. How much would one have to do, or see, or experience in order for life to be “full”? In the film, some of it revolves around not being so careful that we refuse to take any risks. Life itself, by its very nature, is a continual risk. No one knows the day of his or her death, or the day when one will be diagnosed with a terminal disease.

In terms of the Christian faith, I think it is an interesting and profitable path for consideration. We hold that everything we have—down to each breath and heartbeat—is a gift. It is not our own, but bound to the life of Christ, and for the love of one another. That means we are freed from both the legacy of self-promotion and the life-diminishing despair that can overtake us in this death-shadowed valley. Since we came into this world with nothing, and leave it in the same way (and in the light of the resurrection), we can, as Paul put it, pour ourselves out as drink offerings and living sacrifices for the sake of those whom we have been given to serve.

We are tempted (and encouraged, often) to view everything from the limited perspective of our own sight and experience. But our lives are intertwined with many others’. More than that we cannot see the whole story of all lives together. Only God sees that. And His judgment in Jesus, and by Jesus’ resurrection, is that though we cannot see how it all fits together—even how our own life and actions affect and touch the people around us—it will not, finally, be in vain. The resurrection is like the sunrise moving across a dark field, illuminating everything for what it is truly, rather than the drab and colorless image we see prior to the dawn.

While there are no obvious Christian themes underlying Don’t Make Me Go, it is a layered and unexpectedly complex examination of life, parenting, and growing up. (Keep the tissues nearby.)