‘Is’ to ‘Was’
To the Editor:
Like others, I woke Tuesday morning to the news that author Toni Morrison had died. Stumbling upon it online, I must have caught sight of the headline just as the story was breaking. In an effort to be a responsible consumer of the news, I searched the internet for other sources reporting the same thing and came upon Morrison’s Wikipedia page, which began with the opening description, “Toni Morrison is an American novelist, essayist, editor...” “Is.” The present tense was reassuring: maybe this was yet another example of falsely reporting the death of a celebrity.
I checked back to Morrison’s Wikipedia page within the hour and, sure enough, “is” had been changed to “was.” I had an odd feeling, as though I had just witnessed her death in real time. News and information are rapidly available in the internet age, including death.
I thought about Morrison’s changing status of an “is” to a “was” — as a philosophy professor, perhaps I am predisposed to contemplate these things. Indeed, just by chance, the day before I had been reading philosopher Kathy Behrendt’s article “Reasons to Live Versus Reasons Not to Die” in preparation for my fall semester. Behrendt considers Steven Luper-Foy’s remark that “Any reason for living is an excellent reason for not dying.”
Behrendt grapples with the ways this statement is and isn’t true. This seems obviously true in that having reasons to live means I also have reasons not to die. But others challenge Luper-Foy’s statement by claiming that life is about establishing a series of personally meaningful goals; if and when those goals are reached, an indefinite extension of life beyond that serves little greater value. In fact, some may be essentially ready to die once they’ve raised their children, successfully established a career, formed meaningful relationships, or pursued the experiences that were important to them. It might mean the “reasons” to live have reached their completion long before a person’s death.
As I reflected on Ms. Morrison’s death, I realized a less frequently discussed aspect of a meaningful life is the example we might serve to others. In that capacity, the “was” continues long after each of our “is.” What a profoundly powerful thing to realize while still alive.