By the time these pixels become ink and paper, Steve Jobs will have been dead for months, which means that, already, he’s fading from our consciousness. Decomposition doesn’t happen only to corpses; memories of other people in the precorpse phase (usually the shorter of the two) decompose as well. We don’t necessarily forget the dead; time simply makes us remember them less well, that’s all.
You didn’t have to be, as I am, a Mac fanatic to have been moved by Jobs’ exit, at age 56. It seems everyone was. It made me wonder, Why is that? Before you’ve finished this sentence, someone (many, actually) will die. Death happens, always, sometimes en masse. Yet for some reason Steve Jobs’ demise touched a chord in most all of us (though, no doubt, even now we remember “less well” how we felt then).
Perhaps Jobs’ final brush with mortality hit so hard because it reminded us of our own impending one. Here was a man whose cup ran over with all this world has to offer: fame, influence, and money galore, even enough money to have absolutely the best medical care possible. Yet even with all that, with more than most of us could ever dream of, kaboom—he’s as dead as any one of the millions of impoverished children who die of starvation every year.
Subconsciously the rest of us plebes, upon hearing of his demise, probably thought, If this could happen to him, and so young too, what hope is there for me? How true are John Donne’s lines about the town’s church bell announcing a death: “Therefore, send not to know/For whom the bell tolls, /It tolls for thee.”
In his famous 2005 Stanford speech, Jobs talked about his first bout with cancer, and what it taught him about life. “Death,” he said, “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.”
Of course, from our perspective Steve Jobs got it so wrong. Far from being the “best invention of life,” death is the “enemy” of life, to be ultimately destroyed (see 1 Cor. 15:26). For Jobs the specter of death, the realization that our time is limited, should push us to great heights so that we can achieve our dreams. That might sound good, but it’s trite and meaningless at its core.
For starters, being who he was and what he had already accomplished, Steve Jobs could say that. Most folk, though, never come close to achieving what he did. Even those who achieve their dreams often find that they still struggle with a sense of meaninglessness because death, this “best invention of life,” will take it all away from them and, eventually, from everyone else as well. (It’s like a dramatist who, fearing that nuclear war will wipe out humanity, hopes the blasts will be delayed long enough that he can finish his play.)
Jobs got it backward: What pushed him to seek a greater stake in this world, death (at least the inevitability of it), should have been what revealed the futility of putting down roots too deep here, in what’s always shallow ground. Most folk are dead a lot longer than they’re alive, and the reality of death always threatens to nullify the meaning of that life anyway. Sure, Jobs accomplished a lot, but in contrast to a million years, or to eternity, what does it matter?
As Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19, 20).
After Jobs’ death The New Yorker magazine had a cover with Saint Peter, iPad in hand, checking Steve Jobs in at the pearly gates. Cute, but I doubt any of his Apple products will be in heaven.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. This article was published January 19, 2012.