What Scrooge and Oregon Trail Taught Me About Death

I learned to appreciate mortality from Oregon Trail.

When I was in first grade, only my sister and I and one other kid were allowed to play Oregon Trail during computer lab because we destroyed those dumb phonics games and could read well enough to navigate the general store (and buy ridiculously disproportional amounts of supplies—hey, I could read, I never said I was good with numbers).

Note to past self: no one needs more than

Note to past self: no self-respecting pioneer family needs more than 12 sets of clothing. Put all your money into bullets. (Because, let’s face it, you’re a terrible shot.)

To a girl who loved history, this was the height of coolness. “Oh, what’re you doing over there? Picking out consonant sounds? I’m shooting buffalo and fording rivers. Yeah. That’s what I thought, kid.”

Of course, it was cool to go hunting and trade with the Indians and run your oxen into the ground trying to get to the fort because, sorry, the two rabbits you got three days ago aren’t enough to feed your whole calico-clad family. But the most fun part of all?

When people died.

Was this just me? Am I a terrible person? (Probably.)

Here’s how the game worked: at the beginning of your virtual trek across the Old West, you named your party members. Either celebrities or people you knew, usually. And there are few things funnier to a seven-year-old kid than reading the pop-up message, “Barney the Dinosaur has dysentery!” or “Erika drowned in the river” to the accompaniment of sad, tinny music. (Sorry, Erika. But seriously, though. You can’t tell me you didn’t do the same thing to me.)

So. Sad.

So. Sad. (Also, who wears a pink party dress out into the wilderness, anyway?)

Sometimes, though, my complete lack of common sense caught up with me (“Oh, we can totally start traveling in the winter.” “Lighten the wagon before crossing? What do they think I am, a wimp?”). And, in those moments displaying my stunning lack of brilliance, every single member of my party died. Including, well, me.

There it would be, flashed on the screen as a pixelated tombstone: my own death announced.

It wasn’t terribly sobering at the time, until after I read A Christmas Carol. (Okay, fine, until I watched A Muppet Christmas Carol. But I was nine. Also, it’s a great adaptation.) The creepy scene with the Ghost of Christmas Future, when Scrooge sees his own name carved into the tombstone, made me wonder—what would go through my mind if I saw my own grave?

Nine-year-old Amy wasn’t sure. But it was something to think about.

Christmas Carol

Flash forward a decade to nineteen-year-old Amy. I went to a college in the middle of nowhere, where trips to Walmart were a social caravan event. On the way back to campus my freshman year, in a car full of upperclassmen I didn’t know very well, I saw a familiar sight and decided, for some reason, to comment on it.

“Hey, that’s my gravestone,” I said.

The driver’s eyes flicked back to me in the rearview mirror. “Wait…what?”

“That tombstone on the corner there. It says, ‘Green,’ but you can’t read the first name. So I pretend it says, ‘Amy Green.’ Whenever I pass it, it’s like this great reminder that I’m going to die someday.”

Silence. I got that cringing, ears-heating-up feeling that told me “this is not normal.” (I’ve become pretty familiar with that feeling over the years.)

But I forged on, much like the animated pioneers of old, and tried to defend myself. “It’s like in Ecclesiastes, which is not nearly as depressing as people think it is. Or that verse in the Psalms, that says, ‘Teach us to number our days.’ We—younger people, especially—don’t spend enough time thinking about the fact that we’re going to die. We take death and put it away from us, sanitize it, euphemize it, don’t talk about it. But we’re missing something, I think.”

At some point, I realized that A. I was rambling and B. I had just insulted my entire generation, including the people in the car, so I shut up and watched the cornfields pass outside the car windows. My fellow passengers kind of smiled and said, “That’s interesting,” which is an adjective invented for awkward situations when you don’t know what to say.

Maybe I can convince you, even if I didn’t make much sense then: I think it’s valuable to think about death. Not in a morbid way. (Seriously, I am about as far from a morbid person as you can conceivably get.) But in a way that changes the way you live.

What does it look like, to realize that you aren’t promised a peaceful death in your sleep at ninety years old? To love people like one or the other of you might be gone tomorrow…but not push away out of fear? To give all you have to every day, not because it might be your last day, but because it is a day, and we have a limited amount of them and they matter.

They have to matter, all of them. And really remembering that takes more than a slogan like “YOLO” (which I hate, in part because it’s a really dumb-sounding version of “carpe diem,” which is a thousand times classier and also reminds me of The Dead Poets Society).

I think it takes remembering Ecclesiastes, and the effect seeing the future had on Scrooge, and maybe even a gravestone with your name on it.* It takes mourning with those who mourn and getting fed up with the brokenness of this world and considering how you use the limited time you have.

Yes, “teach us to number our days.” And teach us what to do to make each of them worth living.

*Stuffy Theological Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: In my mind, this is similar to the “stones of remembrance” that the Israelites were commanded to set up to remind them of what God had done in the past. Totally different kind of rock, same principle: sometimes we need physical reminders of abstract things—reminders that we can walk by and touch and that call something to mind we might not think about otherwise. Something we can point to and (try to) explain to others.

16 comments

  1. We live in a world that doesn’t want to think about death in any way unless it’s romanticized suicide. In a short lesson given one day by a pastor at a Conference that I’ll never forget, he said, “Death is proof that God keeps his promises.” God promised death in response to sin. And God keeps that promise. Thus, we can see that God keeps his promises and be encouraged, even in death.

      1. Yes it is, though I know people who have experienced their loved one’s commiting suicide so I try to be as gentle about it as I can, but yes. You mean Captain America? I love Captain America for sure! 🙂 Which, yes, probably means we do think alike.

        1. Yeah… I think part of the reason why I like Cap so much is because he just doesn’t give up… even when there isn’t a way out. (Also because he is good at getting other people out, even when it costs him.) I think Cap is probably my favorite out of all the Avengers. Also, he ends up getting handed ridiculous stuff he doesn’t even want and still makes awesome out of it. (Maybe it’s because I know what it’s like to have absolutely no control and chafe at your situation enough to change it, but still having no real ability to do so.)

          1. I love Cap because he is good. We seem to be stuck in a day and age when Good is just considered so boring. A character must have flaws, must fall, must have some horrible sin issue or we just can’t relate to him. I think it’s crazy. You can still suffer and be good. You can still struggle and be good. Heroes like Cap inspire us to be better, not just broken. 🙂 That’s why I love him and all other good heroes.

            1. Yes. I love Steve because he’s flawed but still a good person. Dr. Erskine just says it all: “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” Of course, he has his flaws too–he makes mistakes and people die and he knows it’s his fault, and he argues with Tony and they nearly start a fight–but he still strives to be better. I think the biggest difference between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark is that their worldviews are different. Steve has lost people and things and he still goes on and makes new relationships despite being desperately afraid of losing them again; he knows that sometimes he has to let go of people and things while at the same time never letting go of his code. Tony Stark is nearly the exact opposite of that. But some of their base personality traits are the same–they’ve been molded into very different characters by their different pasts.

              1. I think Steve and Tony are unique foils to one another. Steve is very selfless and Tony is very selfish, so they make a unique team that ultimately in Avengers has Tony doing something selfless, and Steve realizing he does need Tony’s help. Fun stuff. Aren’t stories amazing!

  2. Yoda Only Lambasts Oreos. That’s what YOLO REALLY stands for. X-P
    I have had people look at me like that before… I still think it’s good to think about death, to remind me that I don’t have all the time there is….

  3. I can understand both sides, I suppose. For a long time death was scary and I didn’t think about it because I was terrified of it. Better to live my life happy than count the possible number of days (if all went well) I had left.

    Thankfully that changed when my perspective of death was altered. Now I see it as a great countdown to the most brilliant thing ever; finally being home. In a way it’s frustrating, because since the change in perspective time passes so, so slowly now. The past two years has felt like several lifetimes, and I know I have the real possibility God will keep me here for another 6 or 7 decades. Give me strength, Lord, and I’ll stick it out. Only with that strength, though, because I sure wouldn’t want to do that stint on my own… And then of course there are the days I’m happy I may still be here a good long while yet, because life is a great experience and I wouldn’t want to cut it short.

    It’s amazing how hard it is for people to separate death from morbidity isn’t it? As soon as you bring it up, along with the possibility that it’s a fascinating and vital part of the life journey we’ve been given, you’re some sort of terrible depressing gloomy individual. Can it not just be what it is without us judging it so?

    1. It’s good to hold those two things in tension, I think: wanting to be in heaven and still being grateful for the gift of live here.

      And yes, it’s hard not to come across as morbid when talking about death. Also to explain that it’s not like we’re *celebrating* death in that sense–death is still the enemy, even with hope of eternal life. But it is a reality that we need to face at some point.

      1. The thing that sprung to mind while reading your reply was “Death still comes from God.” And viewed through that frame, it’s hard to judge it as entirely bad. 🙂

        I guess I see it as a step, rather than an end. The close of one chapter, with a lot more book left to read. (That said, I’m very glad God is the one who decides where to put that page break. I wouldn’t want that responsibility.)

        Really great topic, thanks for posting it!

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