The Motivation of Death

In his commencement address to Stanford University, Steve Jobs discusses his own response in the face of death and its impact on his motivation to live a meaningful life. Jobs argues that “Death is very likely the single best invention of life.” Here, he touches on a claim pertinent to Christian life: in creating death, God reveals the true importance of art, work, and community. Jobs demonstrates a clear understanding of the values of life and death; he is only lacking Christ. Texts offering a more complete perspective of death’s meaning include “Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R. Tolkien, “Why Work?” by Dorothy Sayers, and Confessions by St. Augustine. With close analysis of Jobs’ speech and the texts, one can come to the conclusion that death motivates people to follow their hearts creatively, professionally, and communally.

Jobs’ advice on how to follow one’s heart can be illustrated by “Leaf by Niggle,” which references death in a way similar to Jobs. In Tolkien’s purgatorial allegory, an artist named Niggle paints a tree with a myriad of intricately unique leaves. He pours every ounce of his creativity into each individual leaf, working to please no one but himself in a society that does not value creativity. Although Niggle strives to devote his soul to his masterpiece, he does not give nearly as much time as he wishes. He finds himself unable to complete his work due to hindrances including the strict laws of his society, idleness, and a duty to his neighbor. Jobs would encourage him to prioritize his painting because if he felt called to create, he should do so:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Jobs’ advice would best apply to Niggle when his neighbor Parish wants to use the canvas of Niggle’s tree to patch his roof. Both Jobs and Niggle would agree that art is sacred and must be protected. Despite being a practical solution to a leaky roof, Parish’s request undermined Niggle’s spiritual labor in painting.

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“Leaf by Niggle” is included in Tree and Leaf as well as The Tolkien Reader
Despite not having enough time to complete his work, Niggle must make a journey he can no longer postpone. A Driver, reminiscent of the Grim Reaper, takes him to an institution where a “committee” forces him to do menial labor. He does not enjoy the work, nor does he understand its purpose. In time, he earns parole, and the committee sends him to a forest based on the very tree he attempted to create. Niggle’s journey through purgatory, and his destination of heaven, is where Tolkien’s Catholic story deviates from the worldly philosophy of Jobs. Niggle’s artwork is important not only to him, but to God, because his creation has a heavenly purpose. He and Parish work together to complete what Niggle began, which becomes a haven for travelers named “Niggle’s Parish.” Although Jobs was not a painter like Niggle, he was a successful inventor. While not typically categorized with the fine arts, invention requires not only intellect but innovative thinking. Hence, Jobs admires those who follow the call of their heart, and appreciates the beauty of creation in this life. He took his creations seriously, but failed to attribute his ability to create to the Creator. Jobs’ success in creating inventions confirms the presence of divine revelation in a secular context. Despite his contribution to sub-creation, his lack of Christian faith prevents him from recognizing that the heart’s calling is often God’s voice, and that the beauty of creation in this life will be even more so in the next. Jobs knew that artists must prioritize their art because their time on earth is limited; he failed to recognize that artists can still create after death in Paradise. Despite fallacies in dogma, his secular views did not hinder his abilities as an artist of invention or his success in the world of work.

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“Why Work” can be found in Letters to a Diminished Church by Dorothy Sayers
Jobs combats an apathetic attitude toward work by recognizing that the inevitable fate of death does not diminish the significance of living a meaningful life, but enhances it, which is evident in his and Sayer’s philosophy of vocation.  Jobs claimed that he lives his life based on the saying “Live each day as if it were your last.” As a CEO, Jobs spent a majority of his time working, hence he strove to find meaning in his career. He not only lived, but worked, as if each day was his last. In “Why Work?” her essay arguing for a Christian view of secular vocation, Sayers states, “It is the business of the Church to recognize that the secular vocation, as such, is sacred.” Jobs was not a Christian, and therefore did not work with a Christian perspective on his own vocation. However, Sayers would argue that the secularism of his career does not separate it from God’s work on earth. Based on Sayers argument that God values the work more than the worker’s intentions, Jobs’ contributions to technology are more useful to fulfilling God’s plan than the poorly or lazily executed work of a Christian. According to Sayers, “Work must be good work before it can be called God’s work.” Jobs might not have intended to serve God, but he succeeded in Sayers’ call to serve his work, and he did so with passion and skill that many Christians lack in their own respective jobs. His dedication to career enabled his work to serve the world. Even without the intention of serving God, his work plays a role in God’s plan for humanity. The work itself serves God, not the worker’s mentality. Jobs’ career does not need to be labeled as either Christian or secular because God values the quality and practical service of his work, not his religious affiliation. In addition to serving work, other aspects of life matter just as much, such as living in community.

After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Jobs learned that death impacts not only individuals, but also their loved ones, although he never grasped the potential of community. His doctor told him to “Get your affairs in order.” Jobs translated his doctor’s advice to mean “To try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next ten years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.” When Jobs learned of his diagnosis, he demonstrated his deep value of personal relationships. Similarly, St. Augustine describes the mourning after the death of a friend in his memoir Confessions: “My heart was now darkened by grief, and everywhere I looked I saw death.” Both Jobs and Augustine are most highly regarded for their careers, Jobs as a CEO and St. Augustine as a philosopher, theologian, and writer. Despite maintaining busy career lives, both prioritized family and friends. However, St. Augustine suggests that friendship is at its most powerful when practiced in reference to Christ’s relationship with humanity, declaring “Happy is the man who loves you, my God, and his friend in you.” Despite their spiritual differences, both acknowledge the influence of death on an interpersonal relationship.

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Confessions by St. Augustine
What St. Augustine understood that Jobs overlooked was a community’s ability to bring together those who share similar worldviews. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium of Middle Earth, “Hobbits rarely leave the Shire because they tell stories about the lavish goodness of the Shire” (Opitz, Learning for the Love of God). They define their community not only by friendship and family, but by the broader community and how everyone interacts with one another. Their commitment to the Shire can be attributed to the stories and songs that make them Hobbits. In the same way, Christians must “gather at least once a week to tell the stories and sing the songs that make us a distinct people” (Opitz), referring to the Church. The Church and the Shire are communities in which “souls were kindled into a blaze and fused together as one” (Augustine). Jobs valued his role in community. For example, he prioritized his role as a father to his children, and stressed the significance of including his family in “getting his affairs in order.” However, his lack of faith limited his perception of community to interpersonal relationships, rather than community in its most sacred form: a group of people who share a common denominator of stories, songs, and beliefs that make them a unified group, such as the Shire or the Church. Communities are the relationships that break the barriers of death.

Death is the common denominator of mankind. All die, but the eternal question of “What happens next?” divides humanity. The duty to create art, serve one’s work, and live in community with others is not unique to Christianity. All people, regardless of religion and culture, have the ability to cherish sub-creation, find meaning in vocation, and form bonds within a community. However, acknowledging the fulfillment of Christ allows for a deeper comprehension of these topics that transcends an individual’s life. Understanding death is to creation, community, and calling what a rear-view mirror is to a vehicle. Anyone can look out the window and see directly in front of or behind him or her, just as an individual often looks only at his or her present life. One must see a new perspective of the road through a mirror, or see anew through the lens of a Biblical worldview, in order to understand the gestalt of living a meaningful life and God’s purpose in creating death.

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