Our lives tell a story, and Martin Cothran argues that, “A story is a meaning-giving thing.” But especially at Easter, the title of Cothran’s essay, “The End of Life,” needs to be clarified with the real end of the real story being told.
Using the masterful Tuck Everlasting (1975), the young adult fantasy by Natalie Babbitt, Cothran urges readers to consider the meaning – and end, or telos – of life. This coming-of-age woodland fantasy was required reading in my public school education, so I’ll leave the plot to others for those who are unfamiliar with Babbitt’s tale. After outlining protagonist Winnie’s decision to not drink enchanted water that grants undying life in this world despite time’s inevitable advance, Cothran presses the dilemma home to readers:
Both before and after I tell my students this story, I ask them: If you could take a pill that would keep you at the age you are forever, would you take it? Few, if any, of those who say yes the first time respond the same the second. The students who originally said they would drink the water almost always change their minds. Why? What does this story reveal to us that we didn’t know before? As readers, we are unalterably saddened at Winnie’s death, and yet we are forced to conclude that there was something present in her life that will forever be absent from the Tucks’. “That’s what us Tucks are,” says Pa Tuck. “Stuck so’s we can’t move on. We ain’t part of the wheel no more. Dropped off, Winnie. Left behind.”“The End of Life” The Classical Teacher (Spring, 2021) p. 2
We envy the Tucks’ immortality, while we simultaneously recoil from their isolation from the rest of the world.
In Babbitt’s narrative, without the finality of Winnie’s death (portrayed by her grave marker, the definitive dates of birth and death confining and shaping her life), her story is unnatural. As surely as we are born, so surely (and naturally?) we are meant to return to the earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Cothran suggests Winnie’s “life, in fact, was not just a life, but a story. And, like any story, it had a theme—an overarching pattern that gave it meaning.” Our lives – it is suggested – must have a beginning and end, just like a good story. From this we derive our pattern and meaning.
Western Christians will have recently celebrated an event that calls this whole nice & tidy schema into question. Unlike “The End of Life,” the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ begs us consider if there really is such an end for disciples of the Rabbi of Judah. While we agree that life is a story, our story does not end with our deaths, anymore than Jesus’ narrative ended with his. The Lord of life is God not of the dead, but the living, and our stories are just beginning on distant shores at the eternal Wedding Feast of the Lamb and His Bride.
The Resurrection cuts a Gordian knot that Tuck Everlasting leaves us with. Like Cothran’s students, we too assume that immortality is desirable. It is only in the ill-fated conditions that the Tucks find themselves – isolated, marginalized, and completely alien – which grants us a new perspective on the “gift” of their unending life as closer to a curse. Conversely, we want to escape Winnie’s inevitable death, but not at the expense of her complete experience of life “under the sun.” But in the abundant life offered by Jesus, the completeness (shalom?) of Winnie’s choice is harmonized with the Tucks’ longevity. In Jesus’ everlasting life, real telos, real meaning and pattern, are finally realized. How can we achieve Tuck everlasting without Tuck exclusion? How can we have the soul-satisfying totality of life Winnie enjoyed without “the end of life”? The Resurrection answers this universal dilemma.
I don’t point this out to be controversial. I’m sure that Cothran would agree with all of the above. In fact, death in a fallen world brings a certain resolution and satisfaction to Babbitt’s narrative that is – in some sense – necessary. But I write as I do because we must continually remember the shocking truthfulness of the Christian story over and above all the stories we tell ourselves. As C.S. Lewis reminded us, the Jesus story is the only really true story; in the face of all the myths people tell, Jesus is God’s myth. Our lives, our stories, do have meaning, but not in death. Our stories follow the cruciform pattern that Jesus has forged for us, when our stories find their telos not in death, but as death and all things are swallowed up in the immortality of the Lord of life.
If you’re looking for a community or school in north Iowa that has this perspective on literature and the human stories our world tells, I would encourage you to check out Clear Lake Classical. The curriculum, faculty, and community are fantastic!