Miscellaneous Ramblings

Steve Jobs on Living and Dying

Charles Moore - 2005.06.20 - Tip Jar

I thought Steve Jobs' June 12 commencement speech delivered at Stanford University last week was pretty darned good stuff, despite the fact that some students were reportedly "bummed out" by the partly somber and serious topical matter Jobs chose to address.

I am impressed by Jobs' willingness to breach certain subjects not normally discussed in polite conversation these days. As his general theme, Jobs chose to illustrate a Taoist sort of concept that "what has a front, has a back."

For example, Jobs had the chutzpah to tell the nearly 5,000 Stanford graduates that dropping out of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, after eight months study was one of his best decisions ever. Even outside the context of university commencement address, that flies in the face of boilerplate received conventional wisdom and postmodern cultural dogma that indoctrinate people with the notion that unless someone has a college degree, their prospects in life are mediocre at best.

Jobs related, "It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out, I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me and begin dropping in on the ones that looked far more interesting.... Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this."

"None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me, and we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts, and since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them."

Jobs also told the students that while he didn't recognize it at the time, "getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods in my life. During the next five years I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife."

However, Jobs really trampled over dysfunctional politeness by talking about death, noting that in his encounter with pancreatic cancer a year ago, he was initially told that he should expect to live no longer than three to six months. Happily, that prognosis was incorrect, and it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. Jobs says he is fully recovered and in good health today.

But he went on to muse: "No one wants to die, even people who want to go to Heaven don't want to die to get there, and yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it's quite true. Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life...."

Good for Steve. As a Christian, I don't entirely agree with all of his philosophical conclusions about death, but I admire his willingness to bring the topic into the open. To say that our culture doesn't handle the issue of death gracefully is an understatement. We fear death, sentimentalize it, romanticize it, exploit it, and deny it, but for the most part we just don't deal with it on a personal level until we absolutely have to.

This cultural phobia about death is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Not so long ago, most people died at home - not out of sight in hospitals or nursing homes. Death and dying were witnessed firsthand by most people, even the very young. Remains were customarily laid out in the family home, not the remote institutional setting of a funeral parlor. It wasn't unheard of for relatives to participate in preparing a body for burial.

Infant mortality was high by today's standards, infectious diseases often proved deadly before the introduction of antibiotics, and there were frequent wars. Death was dreaded, but being a relatively common visitor, it was faced matter-of-factly rather than being isolated and segregated from "normal life" like it is today.

Another distinction between then and now is that more people used to harbor firm conviction of an afterlife. Today many still hope - but fewer believe - that heaven is real.

Along with increased segregation of death from everyday life came a gradual desacralization of the rituals accompanying it. Priests and ministers used to be the central administrators of these rituals, with undertakers playing a supporting and essentially technical role. Nowadays, clergy are generally relegated to delivering eulogies and conducting perfunctory religious services while doctors, undertakers, and lawyers perform most of the "pastoral" functions related to death.

A culture that systematically trivializes the life of the soul cannot hope to cope well with death. Secular science can't adequately explain death. Material differences between a living person and a corpse are that the former has an electromagnetic field, movement, and blood pH maintained within a narrow range around 7.4 (near neutral), while the latter has no EM field, no movement, and a highly acidic blood pH. The biochemical composition of a healthy young person is essentially the same as that of someone about to die of old age.

So what changes when a person dies? Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe that the living soul separates from the physical body (Christian belief is that the soul will be reunited with a new, perfected body in the afterlife). Oriental philosophers say that bioenergy or "ch'i" runs out.

Modern Western science doesn't attempt to address the metaphysics of death and merely describes measurable physical changes. Prior to the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, Western philosophy and science regarded human beings as an integrated union of body and soul with no hard boundary between the physical and spiritual, but most moderns and postmoderns acknowledge only the physical and material as "real". The soul is a speculative hypothesis at best.

This analysis is profoundly unsatisfying to soul and psyche, both of which must cope with inescapable traumatic reality that we are all going to die.

Some try to rationalize death from a naturalistic perspective, calling it "just the final phase in life's journey." Existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that human existence is a "being towards death" and facing our impending non-being gives meaning to life. However, that rather sentimental view isn't much comfort when one feels death's icy hand.

Christianity teaches that death is not part of original created human existence, but an enemy - the consequence and penalty of sin that gained power only after humanity's fall from grace. The Christian view holds that separation of soul from body is a terrible tragedy, certainly nothing to be gladly embraced or celebrated.

Dylan Thomas was on the right track with his famous lines: "Do not go gentle into that good night;... Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Happily, Christians aren't obliged to helplessly rage against death, possessing as they do more than a wistful hope that heaven does exist. Christianity also maintains that we won't spend eternity floating about as disembodied spirits, but rather that our souls will be united with resurrected, transformed, and glorified bodies - changed from material mortality to eternal life. That is the central point of the Christian Gospel. As St. Paul put it, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable."

That conviction surely results in a more hopeful outlook than Heidegger's impending annihilation or even Steve Jobs' New Agey advice to the Stanford graduates to not "be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart, and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

Regardless of one's personal opinions about Christianity, it is indisputable that when the dominant cultural consensus reflected a Christian view of death and the afterlife, a much more healthy attitude toward death obtained generally in our society.

It is also unsurprising that our culture's repressed fear and dread of death often resurfaces in destructive and dysfunctional modalities, ironically a "culture of death" (as Pope John Paul II called it). Many contemporary sociocultural phenomena - abortion, euthanasia, teen suicide, and violent entertainment - are essentially death-cults, attempts to facilitate an illusion of control over human destiny. But the more we deny our sinful and morally compromised human condition, the tighter a grip sin, evil, and delusion exert on us.

Steve Jobs was (forgive me) dead right about one thing: Everyone still has to die. LEM


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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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