Why Steve Jobs called death ‘the single best invention of life’

Flowers and candles in memory of Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs are seen outside an Apple store in downtown Shanghai Oct. 6, 2011. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters) 

If you follow Facebook or read inspirational blogs, you may have come across the last words of the billionaire co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs:

At this moment, lying on a sick bed and recalling my whole life, I realize that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in, have paled and become meaningless in the face of impending death.... You can employ someone to drive the car for you, make money for you but you cannot have someone to bear the sickness for you. Material things lost can be found. But there is one thing that can never be found when it is lost—Life....
Whichever stage in life we are at right now, with time, we will face the day when the curtain comes down. Treasure Love for your family, love for your spouse, love for your friends. Treat yourself well. Cherish others.

Inspirational thoughts, aren’t they? Too bad he did not actually say or write them. But we can all learn from them. Steve Jobs himself might have learned from them if he had read them while he lived.

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This wisdom is what we want someone who seems to have it all—someone like Steve Jobs—to say to the rest of us who have such long lists of what we want. It is an example of what might be called “death in life,” a theme we encounter in St. Luke’s Gospel as Dives, the rich man, sees his own life and that of the poor man Lazarus from the vista of eternity.

Christ did not give us the parable to prepare us for death. He is teaching us how to live.

The parable stands in continuity with the preaching of Jesus. God’s priorities are very different than our own. The kingdom of God overthrows the rich, the powerful and the self-assured.

The problem with “death in life” as spirituality, however, is our decision to postpone it, to see it as something that comes with death or, as in the fictitious case of Steve Jobs, clearly in sight of death. Christ did not give us the parable to prepare us for death. He is teaching us how to live.

The essential and relentless call of the Gospel is to overturn our perspectives, to overturn ourselves, in this life, on this very day. As the Gospel sees it, our great mistake is postponing everything until the end, until the next life. It goes something like this: Everything will change when the kingdom of God comes, and we plan to have changed ourselves by then as well.

The essential and relentless call of the Gospel is to overturn our perspectives, to overturn ourselves, in this life, on this very day.

Sadly, even the promise of heaven can become a reason for hesitancy on earth, and that, above all, is the one thing the Gospel of Christ rejects. “Death in life” must happen in this life if we are truly to live. We have to encounter an event—and perhaps more than one!—that overturns our agenda, our way of being in the world, our very sense of self. It is only when these things take a tumble that we can look again and see a much smaller self in a more wholesome, more modest world.

The Gospel says that sin is an illusion that envelopes us. Grace is the truth that comes with our tumble. We live quite differently and much more happily when we no longer think the world should be ordered around us, when we let go of a self-constructed sense of who we are.

Live little now. Live like one of the little ones, who trust and know not how to connive. Such a life is the gift of grace. Sadly, grace for the haughty often only comes as a stumble. Shall we pray that we stumble? That might be something you fear if it has never happened. If it has, you already know that it is the narrow gate that leads to life.

Sadly, grace for the haughty often only comes as a stumble. Shall we pray that we stumble?

The mercy of morphine, which we administer so freely to those who are dying, has largely robbed us of final spiritual soliloquies. We mostly die in silence. Steve Jobs, however, did have real last words. They were, according to his sister, “Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow.”

Was he having his own Lazarus moment? Had everything in his life been overturned? Or were those words uttered in soft delight and comfort? We do not know. We cannot know. That is the point. We must not allow images of the end of life and what follows it to shield us from recognizing the illusions in which we live. Do not postpone “death in life.” The Gospel tells us that it is the only way to live.

In a 2005 graduation address at Stanford University, (the real) Steve Jobs called death “the single best invention of life”:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
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 important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Readings: Amos 6:1a, 4-7 1 Timothy 6:11-16 Luke 16:19-31

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
JOAN AND GIULIO GRECCHI
3 weeks 6 days ago

Great article! Much to learn for everyone.

Rhett Segall
3 weeks 5 days ago

"Does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?" (Emily, “Our Town”)This is what thinking about death enables us to do, see the importance of the "now". Without “dead-lines” we’d take things for granted; we’d keep putting things off. God, in giving us a “dead-line”, keeps us sober and alert. But it would lead to despair without hope in the Resurrection. St. Benedict said we should think of death every day. If we pray the Hail Mary daily we will.

Lisa Weber
3 weeks 2 days ago

Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address is an excellent piece of writing on spirituality.

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