07/08/2013 05:32 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Death and the Academy


In the 1970s Ernest Becker wrote The Denial of Death and made the case that our inability to recognize that one day we will die is the root cause of many of the issues moderns face. Seemed to me then to be a reasonable thesis and my experience here at MIT continues to confirm the notion.

When I first came here more than 30 years ago we tried to ignore death and students took quiet pride that MIT was so hard that many students took their own lives. The Institute tried to ignore the issue knowing that the numbers were not out of line with our peers. Today they face the truth with more honesty knowing that one death is one too many, but that it is also impossible to build a safety net that catches everyone.

The sensitivity to death and dying has contributed to the difficulties of this year. We had a graduate student who died last fall. A former student who had gone on to be a graduate student at another university, died shortly after the first of the year. An alum who worked closely with current students died of natural causes, but for those who knew him his death had to be dealt with in a world that depended on his presence. Then there was the Marathon bombing and the death of Sean Collier. Finally, in a bicycle accident, a post-doctoral visitor from Japan lost her life.

When I offered the invocation at graduation I asked for comfort and presence in light of these events. We then turned to Tech Day with memorial services both planned and unscripted where we remembered the deaths in our alumni community.

I think we have come a long way from denying death to making a serious effort to think about what our mortality means.

As glib as it may sound, what this means is that we recognize that for all of our smarts, there are problems we cannot solve, concerns that do not yield to our inquiries. We may deny death pretending that if we ignore it or do the happy dance it will go away. It doesn't and we know it. We die too young. We die too soon and even at the end of a long and good life we had rather not go. Step to the edge and maybe look over, but we prefer to step back into life.

At a less frivolous level it means we recognize that we are part of a larger community where death comes too often. Students tell us they want to get on out into the real world. What we have seen these last weeks is a reminder that the world here on Massachusetts Avenue is as real as it gets. The shock for many international students is that the violence they are familiar with at home has found them in the U.S.

Humility, recognizing that there are problems that defy solutions and shared humanity across the borders of nationality and violence, are steps that take us in a more humane direction, but I asked as well for comfort, a sense of well being, and presence and it may be that I am simply whistling in the dark. As a Christian I think not.

The Christian faith offers us the notion that God remains concerned with humankind and our myriad of triumphs and tragedies. We test the notion and it may be that the transcendent is simply less dependable in our world or less apparent. There is no way to know, but I stay in conversation railing at one moment, grateful in another for a sense of presence.

During graduation week we celebrated the life of Umaer Basha, born when his parents were post-docs at MIT in 1979. He returned in 1997 to begin his studies as a freshman. He had, he wrote, come home! A series of tragic events took his life before too many weeks had passed. As the sun set that fall with the dark foreboding that comes each year, his mother asked me what she should do in her grief? She was tired of crying and we agreed that she should find ways to embrace living that kept her son's memory alive.

From Pakistan, the family is Muslim with a deep sense of God's presence even in their loss and so she began a series of projects including the establishment of an Institute of Technology within the University of Karachi. She still cries, but she also knows that her family has made possible better education for a generation of Pakistani students and that knowledge gives her comfort and purpose.

Death reminds us of what lies ahead for all of us. And we know the end for certainty if we turn inward paralyzed by fear and grief, but if we choose to engage the world, shouting to God about our anger as well as about our hopes, it may well be that we can find in our losses the substance of a better tomorrow.

This year I prayed for presence and comfort. In 2010 I offered these words: "In these hard days when we are reminded often of what we cannot do, help us to remember what we have done. Let angry words not be our mantra, but rather words of celebration, words of joy and words of hope. Tomorrow will be better because of what we celebrate today!"

Or as Mary Oliver has written: "Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine. Let the wind turn in the trees, and the mystery hidden in dirtswing through the air. How could I look at anything in this worldand tremble, and grip my hands over my heart? What should I fear?" (A Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith)

May it be so.