Andy Stone: Love and death: Life’s mysteries

Last week was a strange one for me. In the middle of the week, I attended a memorial service for one of my best friends, who died just a few short weeks ago. Then, almost

immediately after that, I found myself in the middle of the wedding of a wonderful young couple, whose joy as they were married on Saturday was every bit as palpable as the grief had been at the memorial service on Thursday.

There were tears and laughter at both the wedding and the memorial service. They say scientists can test tears in the laboratory and tell whether they were shed in joy or despair. I wonder if they can do the same thing with laughter – sample it somehow and determine if you were laughing with hope for the future or with the profoundest sense of loss for joy forever trapped in the past.

But, laughter and tears aside, there was a much deeper connection between the two events that

whirled me around last week. At heart, each was a whirlwind centered on the depths of a mystery. They were two of the most common – and yet, for all that the most profound – of life’s mysteries.

Love and death.

What could be more common? What could be more unknowable?

Everything that lives must die. That would seem to be the most basic of all the rules that govern life.

Yet, common though it is, we understand it not at all.

What does it mean when someone dies? Where did they go? That may be the oldest question – and the most unknowable.

Many who have the comfort of religion have faith that they know the answer. Indeed religion at its core may have sprung from the attempt to answer that single, most basic question: What happens to us after we die?

But truly we cannot know. Those who have faith have comfort, but not knowledge. Faith is, in fact, the polar opposite of knowledge.

Where is my friend now? If I close my eyes, I can see his face. If I concentrate, I can hear his voice. I can sense the changes his friendship made in me. But where is he?

I cannot know.

But if death is a mystery, so is love.

Our society seems to do its best to ignore the realities of death (except for violent death, as glorified in movies, television and video games). Instead, we are obsessed with love. In television, movies, books, magazines and, beyond that, in our everyday lives, we seem to focus on love: finding it, getting it, keeping it.

And yet, we still truly know nothing about it.

For centuries, poets and playwrights and novelists have tried to understand love, to surround it, dissect it, comprehend it.

What makes loves last? What makes love fade? What is love?

We have no idea.

Perhaps love, like death, is a simple fact of the way we are made.

We learn – in high school, I believe – that many species of animals mate for life. Clearly, we are – or are meant to be – one of those species.

We don’t think of it in those terms. Geese mate for life, but they are not “in love.” They are simply slaves to their DNA.

We, free-spirited humans, are not enslaved. We choose. And yet, almost everywhere, almost from the beginning of time, human beings have paired off and created rituals to formalize that pairing. And if so many of us don’t follow that course, it may be only because our treasured intelligence and self-consciousness interfere with the simple perfection of the system spelled out in our genes.

And so, perhaps “love” is simply the term we have invented to describe the incomprehensible urge to mate for life.

When we’re hungry, we understand. We need food. We eat. When we’re tired, we understand. We need rest. We sleep.

But we don’t even have a word as simple as “hungry” or “tired” to describe the state of needing to find a mate, for life. And that undefined urge is so tangled in the complexities of our mind that its fulfillment is infinitely more complicated than the relative simplicities of a good night’s sleep or a cheeseburger with a side of fries.

What is death? I do not know – but I know my friend is dead.

What is love? Again, I do not know – but I could feel it pulsating in waves from the young couple who stood, tears streaming down their cheeks as they exchanged vows as the wind blew through the leaves in a century-old orchard under a fierce blue Colorado sky.

[Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is]


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