My unutterably dear children (and grandchildren), I give you this book about the most valuable life lessons I have learned because I want to give you everything I can, and writing books is something I can do.
My unutterably dear children (and grandchildren),
I give you this book about the most valuable life lessons I have learned because I want to give you everything I can, and writing books is something I can do. I wish I had given you more of myself, that I had been a stronger, wiser, and more present father to you. This book is a poor substitute for that. But its motive is not poor; its motive is my love for you, which is stronger than my love of life itself.
I wish I had shaped that love into stronger forms. Any parent, if only he or she is honest, humble, and loving, must regret not having had godlike powers to fulfill the godlike responsibility of being a God-stand-in, a parent. What a job! All the other jobs in the world combined can't compare.
Jesus didn't have to write any books because He lived all His teaching perfectly. No one else ever did. That's why we write books for each other. All books say, "Do as I say, not as I do." Even the Bible was written by sinners.
Love can take many forms. Let my love for you now take the form of this book. True, it is not an adequate substitute for the living words of a person, any more than banging on a drum is a substitute for being a drummer. Yet Jesus accepted the little drummer boy's gift, so please accept mine, in the same spirit, as a gift of love.
The order of these life lessons is random, deliberately undeliberate. They come in the order in which they were written, like life itself.
1. From the Dying to the Living
This book originated in my musing on Doctor Samuel Johnson's famous observation, "I know of no thought that so wonderfully concentrates a man's* mind as the thought that he will be hanged tomorrow morning."
As I begin this book I am still young (in my sixties) and in good health. It is hard to imagine that one day the hand that penned this will be the hand of a skeleton. But I know it is true. Death is life's one certain prognosis.
*Grammar note: As in all the prefeminist books, "man" here means males and females equally. I do not believe men are superior to women, but I do believe that inclusive language is superior to exclusive language. So I use "he" and "man" to mean males and females equally. What feminists call "inclusive language" is really exclusive language, and what they call "exclusive language" is really inclusive. Naturally, the sixties radicals who hated and killed femininity called themselves "feminists." And Mao Zedong's China was called "the people's republic."
C.S. Lewis says somewhere that no one should be allowed to die without having read Plato's Symposium. (I'd say his "Apology.") I think that I should not be allowed to die before saying these things to you. I have written dozens of books, and thousands of strangers have read them; it is high time I wrote one for four of the five people I love the most – my own children.
Nearly as universal as death is a parent's love for his children. But when the parent is dead, it's too late to share the most precious things he knows. The parent, thus, is in a dilemma: after he is dead, he can no longer speak; but before he dies, his words do not carry the weight of death with them, and they are lost in the crowd of other words. A dying man's words step up and come forth out of the crowd of other words, and they have an edge because their speaker stands at the edge. No child forgets the last words of a dying parent or vice versa. My father's last words to me were simply "I love you" and my last words to him were the same, and then "Go, Dad, under the mercy." Writing a book is a way of escaping that dilemma, for a book is like a ghost – it remains, even though it is not the living author but only his "remains." It is a word-insurance policy. It is a way of speaking even after you are dead.
These words are for you. Whether anyone else reads them is not my main concern. I have published this book only to give them the chance to overhear our conversation.
But this book is universal enough for all. I did not include the unique, the private things: John's giraffe Girard, Jenny's Raggedy Ann, Katherine's dead squirrel, and Bean's falling-apart, blue Binkie – or their psychological equivalents. Those are yours alone, part of the secret identity known only to you, your two procreators, and your Creator and Designer. (We all wear Designer genes.)
2. Who Am I To Give Advice?
Who am I to give advice to others; I, who need to take advice myself? Isn't this hypocritical?
No, it is not hypocritical, because I begin right here with the one thing I know we all need – absolute honesty. My advice is to admit that you need advice. Honesty and humility are almost the same thing.
But who am I to speak of this? Am I some kind of expert in humility? Can I be proud of my humility? Far from it. But if we were forbidden to preach or to hear preaching until we practiced, we would all be deaf and dumb.
Who am I to give advice? I'm like you.
3. The Best Thing in Life
My dear children, because I love you the most, I want to give you the best things in life. But I can't give you the very best thing because that is not a thing at all, and it is not something any of us can give to another. Each of us has to get it for himself or herself. I didn't get it from my parents, though they helped me enormously, and you can't get it from me, though I can try to help – and this book is part of that attempt.
What is the very best thing in life? The greatest good?
Everything in life is good for something. But maybe something is good for everything. The very best thing is. Everybody knows that there's something good in everything, but not everyone knows that there's everything good in something. One word for that something is "God." God is total, infinite goodness. If that isn't true, God isn't God and let's be atheists.
But how do you get this "best thing in life"? How do you "get" God? What can it mean to "have" Him?
Of course we can't "get" Him or possess Him. We can't even possess other human beings, though fools keep trying to. But we can know God and not just know about Him. We can be His friends. We can even spiritually marry Him! We can make Him in our lives what He is in fact: number one.
It's very simple: He's actually there, and we actually meet Him when we pray, whether we feel that or not, and He actually does stuff to us when we pray, whether we feel it or not. And that relationship is called "religion" (the word "religion" means, literally, "relationship"), and that is the very best thing we can do in this life because it's what we're going to be doing forever, and it's the only thing there is that's going to give us joy without boredom forever.
Everybody in the world knows that. We can all sense something like that, deep down. Christians know more: that since we couldn't make it up to Him, He came down to us and became one of us. He let down His "Jacob's ladder" from Heaven, and that ladder is not a thing but a person, with a face and a name and a place. And we can find that person, that face, that name, and that place very easily: just look at a crucifix. It's the world's most important road map.
4. If There Was Time to Say Just One Thing
If I knew there was only one minute left for us to talk to each other and after that minute we would never again see each other in this world, what would be the one thing I would most want to say to you and to hear you say to me?
"I love you," of course. But also, "I forgive you." Because love has enemies, and forgiveness destroys all those enemies.
Jesus thought forgiveness is so important that He made our salvation depend on it. He made us pray, "God, forgive us our wrongs just as much as we forgive those who have wronged us."
So I ask your forgiveness for neglecting you, misunderstanding you, not trying harder, not taking more responsibility for your lives, and not sharing with you more of my feelings, dreams, and wisdom (whatever that may be). Despite all that, I have always loved you, I always will, and I know you know that. I also know you love me and forgive me for all my faults. I know you accept my forgiveness for all the little stupid things you've done. (Welcome to the human race.)
You've really been wonderful, lovable, beautiful kids. You give us far, far less trouble and much more love than most kids do today. You deserve to be loved more than you are and that's one of the reasons I'm glad there's a God – because He can do that even when I can't.
5. Everything Is Love
Not only is love everything, but everything is love.
Love is everything. Love is the soul of everything valuable. The most precious gift in the world given without love is worthless; the cheapest gift in the world given with love is priceless.
But everything is also love. Everything valuable is made of love. Everything that exists, from yourself to a grain of sand, is God's love made visible, made incarnate – love in the form of creation. The words He spoke to create everything in the universe – "let it be" – were the words of love. He loved stuff into being. Space is love's spread. The room you are in now is a thousand cubic feet of God's love spread out. Time is love's life ("lifetime"). History is love's drama. Matter is love's body. Gravity is love's energy when it moves not souls but stars and stones and storms. We are love's children. "Be made" means "I love you." Your very existence is God's love of you. Love is the meaning of life and the meaning of religion and the meaning of everything.
6. The Most Important Person
One of the stupidest songs I ever heard on TV was the theme song of a kids' show of the seventies, "The Electric Company." It said: "The most important person in the whole wide world is – you!" Implied message: be a self-centered little spoiled brat. You're number one, everyone else is number two.
Here is an alternative philosophy:
- The most important person is God. This is as necessarily true as 2 + 2 = 4. It is true whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, whether you believe it or not. So you'd better learn to know it and like it and believe it.
The second most important person in the world is the person you marry. Nobody else comes even close. That's what marriage is. If you don't know that, you're not really married.
- Next come your kids.
- Then comes yourself. Take care of yourself before taking care of anyone else except your kids, your spouse, and your God. Because if you don't inflate your own oxygen mask first, you won't be able to help others inflate theirs.
Then comes your friends. Never betray a friend.
- Then comes everyone else you know, your neighbors.
- Then comes the rest of the world.
- Then comes things, any and all things: money, the things money can buy – houses, cars, and vacations. Stuff (Remember George Carlin's routine about "stuff.") Always, people before things. Use things and love people, not vice versa.
- Finally, abstractions: ideas, causes, organizations, political parties, etc. They are means to the rest as ends. By the way, the Church is not an "organization," it's a family. I never saw "organized religion," only disorganized religion, like Noah's ark.
7. Memento mori
That's Latin for "remember death." It's a medieval saying, and it's a good test of our perspective. Death (our own death) puts life into proper perspective. Things that seemed important recede into triviality when you're dying – things like fame and money and stuff. And things we usually ignore – things like love, trust, honesty, self-giving, and forgiveness – these stand out as infinitely more important in light of death. Death's dark light is pretty bright!
Whatever you can't take with you is only placenta, after-birth. What you can take with you is the baby.
When Elizabeth was (mis-)diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, I was amazed at how unimportant a thousand things suddenly became: paying bills, getting things done on schedule, and keeping up life's appearances, facades, makeup, all its sandcastles. They could all wait. One day soon it will all have to wait forever.
Ask yourself: what can't you take with you? And whatever answers you find, stop worrying about them now.
Ask yourself: what can you, will you, and must you take with you? And whatever answers you find, care about those things now.
"In the evening of our lives, we will be Judged on our love." (St. John of the Cross)
The number one regret people have when dying is not having told their children or their parents how much they loved them.
The most destructive mistake in life is not forgiving, since forgiving is love's first deed.
What will be important to you on your deathbed? Let that be important to you now. Because you are on your deathbed now. As soon as you are born, you are born onto a deathbed. Nobody gets out of this place alive. Doctor Johnson is right: the thought of your death "wonderfully clarifies the mind." Demand clarity now.
Peter Kreeft. Introduction and chapters 1-7 of before i go (Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward, 2007): 1-17.
Excerpted by permission of Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Sheed & Ward is an imprint of Rowan & Littlefield Publishers.
Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965. He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: You Can Understand the Bible, How to Be Holy: First Steps in Becoming a Saint, Fundamentals of the Faith, The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, Prayer for Beginners, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2007 Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
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