“Glory is sacrifice, glory is exhaustion, glory is having nothing left to give. Almost. It is death by living.”
In 2009 N.D. Wilson wrote a genre defying book titled Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken Whirl, in which he wrote about how life could be viewed and told by sitting in the famous carnival and circus ride a tilt-a-whirl. I imagine for most readers it was a book which was the first of its kind. No doubt, as readers considered their experiences in a tilt-a-whirl ride, Wilson accomplished his goal. It was fast paced, hard to put down, hard to follow at times, but rewarding to those who could finish it.
Almost four years later to the date, Wilson is at it again and he does not disappoint. With much of the same genre defying style, and all of the same writing wit and personality, Wilson has written a semi-follow up book titled Death by Living: Life Is Meant to be Spent. Through the telling of many varied life stories of various people, including himself, Wilson shows us how to prepare for death by living life.
Stories of life
Unlike his first book of this sort, Wilson drives home his message by relating the life events from various people he knows, weaving them in and out from chapter to chapter and paragraph to paragraph. This book is less about tackling the big theological and philosophical questions of life—such as “Why do people suffer?” and “How can a good God and evil both exist?”—and more about presenting the lives of various people whom Wilson believes get the idea of death by living.
The stories of the various individuals are intertwined together in such a way that one can read parts of different lives more than once even within the same chapter. While stylistically this might be breaking the rules of Writing 101, and an editor’s worst nightmare, it is done on purpose to drive home the point that our lives are a woven tapestry and are not lived in seclusion but rather are mixed together by the sovereign Creator’s hand. All of the stories of our lives are happening at the same time. Wilson wants us to take note of this. “Each of us is in the middle of a story. But for some reason, we don’t show the slightest desire to read it, let alone live it with any kind of humble self-awareness” (4). Wilson wants us to step back and read our lives and the lives of others to whom we are connected. This could take some time!
The Author of life’s story
One of the themes that Wilson drives through nearly every chapter and life story is the idea that our lives are the delicate and detailed working of God our creator. He states,
We are nothing more than molded clay given breath, but we are nothing less than divine self-portraits, huffing and puffing along mountain ranges of epic narrative arcs prepared for us by the Infinite Word Himself. (6)
And again, speaking of the lives of his sleeping children after a miserable drive through a snow storm through which they slept:
The five young souls closest to me are the first that I touch, and they are brother and sisters to a King. He treasures them more than I ever could, even at my most wistful. He shaped them from nothing. He called them here and burdened them with me as their father. He beats their hearts and His breath inflates their lungs. He knows their beginning and their ends. He know how many other souls He will bring from these five in the centuries to come just as He knows how many flakes He hurled at me on the mountain. We are all flakes, hurled with intertwining artistry. (146)
For some, the idea of our Creator’s hand working out the details of our lives may seem intrusive. Wilson would have it no other way. How else can life be the story it is? Who else could create and perfectly weave the beautiful stories of all of our lives together with purpose and momentum other that God?
Living life like a good story
As we read, we get the idea that Wilson is trying to draw us into the story of our own lives by letting us peak into the stories of others’ lives. This is certainly how the book affected me. I felt this way as I read about his puking child at the end of a long plane ride—and in various public places you pray that never happens. I was drawn in as he told the stories of his grandfather’s conversion and life in the military and of his grandparents showing him, his siblings, and cousins, videos and pictures of their own lives. Here are people who don’t just agree that life is a past story to tell,but also see it as a story being told and one whose future is yet to be seen. These are the lives of people who are preparing for death by living. Wilson poignantly observes,
As it turns out, there is a difference between asserting that life is a story and actually living life like a story. And there is another difference between living life like a story and living life like a good story. (71)
Wilson wants us to identify with their stories. He wants us to see the similarities between our lives and theirs. If we can see that these people are living life, we can see how we might be already, or at least how easily we can begin to. As I read the bit about his child throwing up I was reminded of my plane ride back from China with my wife and our just-adopted son and how she and I were throwing up the whole way home (thankfully, our son was not but was there to comfort us the whole way!). I gave it a good Facebook LOL (with caps of course!) on almost every page as he retold the events of their trip. I began to see my life as Wilson saw his and that is the point. When we step back and see our life for the varied compilation of stores that it is, we begin to see life as the beauty that God has and is making it. All of the stories of our lives are part of the story of what God is creating through all of our lives.
Death by living
All of our lives are a story, a story worth telling—a good story. Wilson puts the story of his life and others to paper and through it we are awakened to the story that all of our lives already are. He has helped pave the way for us to see our lives as they really are. We don’t need to wish we were someone else. We don’t need to envy, crave, lust after, or despise the seemingly better lives of those on the cover of magazines. It is the ordinary life of every ordinary person that is worth telling. We need to see our lives as a story of the Creator of all stories. We all have a life of stories worth living and sharing. It is in living our lives that we prepare for its end. This is death by living. This is living a life that is meant to be spent.
Death by Living is the kind of book we all need to read. It will challenge the daft assumptions we have about our lives. Wilson will show you how to see it as he does. Wilson’s life is no different than the rest of ours but he knows how to see it for the marvelous story that it is. Live each moment as if you were dying the next.
About the author
N. D. Wilson is a best-selling novelist, professional daydreamer, and occasional screenwriter. He enjoys hilltops, callouses, and the smell of rain on hot asphalt. He and his wife have five children, and he is currently a Fellow of Literature at New Saint Andrews College, where he teaches freshmen how to play with words.
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