In poet Mary Oliver’s “Summer Day,” the reader is asked a pivotal question: “... what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I’ve noticed a trend recently, that plenty of people love the poem, but they often use it as inspiration-fuel to drive them more deeply into their own ambitions, instead of taking the sort of holy pause that Oliver imagines.
Oliver’s poem is run through with the reality that shapes us all: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” The reality of death ought to make us slow down, refuse ambition, and “be idle and blessed.” While Oliver is on my mind quite a bit these days, I did not expect to find such an able conversation partner when I took my five-year-old to see DreamWorks Animation’s new Puss in Boots: The Last Wish over the New Year’s weekend.
While it’s a kids’ movie that follows the adventures of Puss, a swashbuckling cat from the Shrek movie franchise, it’s also a modern-day memento mori in which Death emerges as a main character, forcing Puss to decide what to do with his last life. Seeking the tools that will help them attain a magic wish, Puss teams up with a main character from Puss in Boots (2011), Kitty Softpaws — an agile, feline thief as well as Puss’ love interest — and a newcomer named Perrito, a kind-hearted dog.
Along the way, Puss is faced with a dilemma: Will he hold onto his carefully curated image of bravado and toxic masculinity, or will he dare to be vulnerable? Perhaps the only thing that Puss is more afraid of than Death is appearing weak to his friends. But to finally confront Death, he must ask for help, share his fears, and admit that he needs them.
When Death appears on screen, Puss runs away time and time again. Because he is unwilling to actually talk about his fears or, indeed, even admit that he’s running from them, he is cut off from his community in ways that forestall his healing and make connection impossible. Only when he names his fears to others — that he sees Death around every corner whistling its haunting tune and that he deeply regrets his inability to commit to a romantic relationship — does he then gain the courage to face Death head-on.
For Puss, it turns out that Death wasn’t the scariest fate that awaited him. Rather, Puss’ real fear was the unlived life. Puss had squandered his previous eight lives trying to uphold the image of a very cool cat. In so doing, he has missed what really mattered: a life lived for and with others.
Obviously, Puss is outmatched, as we all are, in that battle. But he wins a tentative reprieve so that he can spend the last of his nine lives “idle and blessed” (as Mary Oliver wrote) with his best friends. He has finally admitted that he needs those relationships and that his life cannot be complete without being shared with others.
In that way, Puss in Boots mirrors one of the central teachings of the Christian tradition. In a line that appears in Matthew and Luke, Jesus tells us that we ought not be afraid of death, but that we should be afraid of that which can do damage to our souls. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
We can be unafraid of death because Jesus has overcome it, allowing us to more bravely face our mortal world: Death will claim us, but it will not have the final word. Indeed, the author of Hebrews sums up Jesus’ ministry as coming to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). Christians ought to approach death not as a terror, but as an eventuality that Christ has conquered through the cross. As church father St. John Chrysostom put it in his “Easter Homily,” “Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.”
Being unafraid of death is easier said than done. Death is one of the great fears that stalks the minds and hearts of human beings. That being said, there are times when Paul still dares to mock death: “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’” (1 Corinthians 15:55). As a pastor, I have held plenty of hands as people die, yet I have never heard such boasting. What I have heard are regrets, contentment, fear, and any number of emotions. How we face death is complicated.
But the one constant that I have witnessed in my decade of ministry is that death holds up a mirror to our lives and pushes us to reflect on what we have done and left undone. The same takes place in Puss in Boots, as death causes eight proud and selfish feline reflections to dance on crystals in front of Puss, showing him how he spent his lives — in bravado, drunkenness, and selfishness.
To echo the words of poet Alexander Pope, death is a “great teacher.” It shows us our unvarnished selves. At the end of our lives, similar to Puss, we are left with whether we lived our lives well or not — nothing more, nothing less. For Christians, a life lived well is determined by whether or not we lived our lives for others. To paraphrase Matthew 16:25, It is only in giving away our lives, that we can truly gain them.
In the end, the question that Puss faces and that we all must face is Oliver’s: “... what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Unlike Puss, we do not get eight free rounds of practice to get it right.