I think about death a lot.
You may have noticed.
I figure that it’s just good division of labor. Most people don’t think about death at all. So I do their thinking about death for them, so that, when they need to face death,
I’m ready to help. Of course, this means that sometimes I need help thinking about life. That’s why I’m married. When I find myself spiraling into a black mood, Crystal is there to pull me out of it. That’s good.
I also tend to analyse the books that I read and the movies that I watch. I try to avoid reading or watching junk. Stories are like food. Some junk food is okay on special occasions, but you need a healthy diet of substantial stories to keep going. This doesn’t mean that they all have to be heavy. There’s a place for light reading or light entertainment. I just prefer to be deliberate about this choice, rather than defaulting to a particular choice all the time.
All of that is really just a preface. Because, without that information, you won’t understand why I’m turning a Stephen King novel over and over in my head.
I just finished reading The Long Walk by Richard Bachman (which is a pseudonym of King’s). The premise is simple. Every year, the government holds a competition called the Long Walk. This has become a central part of American life, drawing spectators from across the country. Potential contestants must first pass a written test, and then those who are eligible are selected at random. The contest itself is simple. The competitors gather in Maine and begin to walk south, following a pre-arranged route. A contestant must maintain a speed of four miles an hour. Dropping below this speed earns the contestant a warning. The contestant will continue to earn warnings every thirty seconds until his speed is back to four miles an hour or more. Walking for an hour without any lapse in speed erases one of your warnings. If a contestant has three warnings and lapses below four miles an hour, he is shot. There are no breaks, no pauses for rest, no bathroom stops, no camping for the night. Nothing.
Last man standing wins.
So, one hundred young men begin this race, but only one will finish it. The rest will be dead. The winner earns the Prize, which is essentially one wish. The government will give him whatever he wants.
That’s it. That’s the premise. We follow Ray Garrity (“Maine’s Own”) through a Long Walk.
The book played out largely how I expected that it would. In particular, as the harsh reality of what is going on settles in, a question is repeated: Why did I decide to do this? Is the Prize worth this? What if the Prize is fake? In addition, there is a grim paradox. In order to avoid being alone, you find yourself talking to the other boys walking with you. So, you find that maybe you like this person and start caring about what happens to him. But, you can’t win until they are all dead.
Oh, spoilers ahead, for whatever that’s worth.
The short version is that Ray Garrity wins the Long Walk, but he dies immediately after winning. Actually, I think that it’s possible to interpret the ending as Ray rejecting the Prize to embrace death. So, in a sense, the Prize that he was really seeking was death.
Uplifting, I know.
So, I’m contemplating this book, and I’m wondering if the Long Walk is intended as a metaphor for life. I wouldn’t put it past King, based on what I know about him. Think about it from the perspective of someone who is not a Christian. It looks something like this. Here we are, in this life. Of course, we are all pursuing something (the Prize). Along the way, though, we begin to question if the Prize is worth it. I could turn aside from pursuing the Prize and accept something lesser. Maybe it’s sex. Maybe it’s food. Maybe it’s just a chance to stop fighting. Of course, that way lies death. But then again, so does the pursuit of the Prize. In the end, the Prize isn’t worth it. All that’s left is death. And so, at the end of your life, you look back at all the bodies that you’ve stepped over to achieve your Prize, and it is never worth it. In the end, all that you have gained is death. So how are you any better off than those that fell by the side of the road?
Maybe that’s an interpretive strain on the book. I’m not sure. But maybe not.
But there’s more.
Christians are also on a Long Walk. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” (Hebrews 12:1-3) Often we think about this race as a sprint, but I don’t think that is the best understanding. Rather, it’s a marathon. A long-haul race. A Long Walk. And at the end is the Prize. But to reach the Prize, you have to go forward. There is no stopping until the end. And along the way, the questions arise: why did I decide to do this? Is the Prize worth this? What if the Prize is fake? But there is a crucial difference. You can win together. And so you carry the wounded, and you drag the bleeding, and you bandage and you pray and you keep moving forward, moving forward, because to stop is to die. And the pathway is covered with the bloody footprints of those who have gone before. And the world surrounds you, watching from the sidelines, laughing when you fall, not caring that you are suffering and bleeding and dying. It’s entertaining! It’s fun! And at the end is the Prize: death.
This is known as the Way of the Cross. Jesus walked it first, and we all follow Him.
“Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)
“So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through His own blood. Therefore let us go to Him outside the camp and bear the reproach He endured.” (Hebrews 13:12-13)
Recently, I have come to take a lot of comfort from the account of the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was looking ahead to a day that He dreaded, and He did not want to go. “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.'” (Matthew 26:39) He knew that one of his trusted friends was about to betray Him. He knew that His disciples would abandon Him. He knew that Peter would deny ever knowing Him. He knew that His body would be torn apart and that His spirit would be afflicted and that He did not deserve any of it. And in the stillness of the garden, in the bleak nighttime of His sorrow, He pours out His soul and cries out, “Please, God, Father, please. I don’t want to go. Please, can’t there be another way?”
I know that my heart has spoken these words many times, when I have faced the lonesome dark, and the weary road, and the endless night of sorrow. “Please, God, can’t there be another way?” And I know that I should trust His wisdom, and I know that I should trust His love, and sometimes that is enough. But sometimes I need to remember that Jesus never asks me to do anything that He hasn’t done Himself. So I know that He stood back up and wiped away His tears and walked to His death like a man. I know that He opened Himself and made Himself vulnerable and paid the price. I know that He walked into darkness and was wounded in body and soul. I know that the breath rattled in His lungs one last time as His broken body finally collapsed. I know that He was buried in a tomb and left to rot.
And I know that He walked out on the other side, alive and glorified. I know that He now no longer suffers the pain of death, that He rules all things because He earned it, that all creation sings His praise. And I know that He promises the same for me, if I endure to the end, like He did.
Death is at the end of the Long Walk, but for us, death is the gateway to life.
Perhaps King is onto something, for this is how he ends his book.
A hand on his shoulder. Garrity shook it off impatiently. The dark figure beckoned, beckoned in the rain, beckoned for him to come and walk, to come and play the game. And it was time to get started. There was still so far to walk.
Eyes blind, supplicating hands held out before him as if for alms, Garrity walked toward the dark figure.
And when the hand touched his shoulder again, he somehow found the strength to run.
I’ll see you all at the end. Last one there’s a rotten egg.