“It is not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I die at the end,” says Vivian Bearing at the beginning of Wit, the Pulitzer Prize–winning play by Margaret Edson. This grim revelation serves a vital purpose: by removing the guesswork over whether Vivian will die, Wit invites the audience to focus instead on her—and our—attitude toward dying.
Because we all die at the end, it’s remarkable how little time we devote to thinking about it. We long to live, but we know we’ll die—and have become masters at distracting ourselves from this fact. Still, death remains what psychologist Jeff Greenberg calls a “worm at the core” of our lives. Novelist Philip Roth puts it this way: “In every calm and reasonable person there is a hidden second person scared witless about death.”
What we fear most about death is the finality. We know death is coming and that its arrival will raise a host of questions: Was my life worth having? Is there a purpose to all I’ve seen and done? What happens to me after death? The thought of facing these questions grips our days, driving us to live in ways that will permit us finally to say, “I’m ready for death.”
In short, we long for “the good death”—a peaceful readiness for death that stands as final proof that we lived “the good life.” As Petrarch writes, “A good death does honor to a whole life.” Leonardo da Vinci put it more poetically: “As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so well-used life brings happy death.”
Good Life = Good Death?
For Christians, this “good life = good death” formula presents a paradox: why do the wicked often prosper in life and death while the righteous often suffer? This question plagued Asaph, chief musician of Israel and author of 12 psalms (Ps. 50; 73–83).
For Christians, this ‘good life = good death’ formula presents a paradox: why do the wicked often prosper in life and death while the righteous often suffer?
In Psalm 73, Asaph laments there are wicked men who lead happy lives, free from common troubles and sorrows, who then approach death with peaceful readiness (vv. 4–5). These men have been prideful, using violence and other means of oppression to increase their wealth and status, despite already having more than they could ever need (vv. 6–7). Through it all, they’ve boasted and have mocked God, scoffing at the idea that he knows or cares what they do. Being confident they won’t be called to account for the way they lived, they approach death with ease and comfort (vv. 8–12).
In stark contrast, Asaph was a righteous man chosen by King David to serve as chief musician and to minister before the ark of the covenant in Jerusalem (1 Chron. 16:1–5). For all of Asaph’s faithfulness, though, it seemed his reward was to experience chronic pain and suffering until his death (v. 14). He grew jealous of the wicked (v. 3) and began to wonder: if the wicked prosper while I suffer, then what use is it for me to follow God (vv. 2, 13)?
Unreliability of Wit
Not long after Vivian Bearing reveals that she’ll die at the end of Wit, the audience learns the means: ovarian cancer. Upon hearing the prognosis, Vivian reassures herself she’s prepared for death: “I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language.”
For Vivian—a highly successful scholar—death had been less a visceral reality and more an intellectual puzzle, a riddle to which her remarkable wit could be applied. But as cancer eats her body and death takes a more visceral appearance, Vivian—like Asaph—begins to doubt what she thought she knew. Eventually, she learns what Asaph had: one’s wit is a woeful preparer for death.
Our wits tell us that being free of pain and full of prosperity is the surest sign of a good life, and the purest promise of a good death. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with desiring health and earthly success. A person who possesses these things is right to consider them gifts from God. Problems arise when, like the wicked in Psalm 73, we desire the pleasures of the gifts more than the presence of the Giver.
Problems arise when, like the wicked in Psalm 73, we desire the pleasures of the gifts more than the presence of the Giver.
When Asaph’s wit told him to flee God’s presence, he refused and instead brought his pain and bewilderment before God (v. 17). There, in the presence of the Giver, Asaph understood that the Lord who gives could surely take away (Job 1:21). For the wicked, this means that they, along with their earthly gifts, would one day be “brought to desolation, as in a moment” (v. 19). As suddenly as a person wakes from a dream, God would rise and “cast them down to destruction” and they would be “utterly consumed with terrors” (vv. 18–20).
Peace That Leads to Death
During a critical scene in Wit, Vivian recalls a conversation with her former professor, E. M. Ashford, who tells Vivian that she must redo a paper on John Donne’s sonnet “Death, Be Not Proud.” It seems Vivian had relied on an “inauthentically punctuated” version that uses semicolons and exclamation points to awkwardly juxtapose Donne’s analyses of “life” and “death.” In the correct version, this dramatic punctuation is replaced with a simple comma: “And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.”
“Death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points,” says Ashford. “Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting.” Still, Vivian sees only an intellectual game to play—“It’s wit!” she says. To which Ashford insists, “It is not wit, Miss Bearing. It is the truth.” Death really is as fleeting as breath.
Many people, liked the wicked in Psalm 73, withstand their fear of death by reassuring themselves that death isn’t a comma, but a period, a hard stop, a final ending to the paragraphs that compose their life’s story. By believing this, a person can live however they choose before peacefully passing away with the reassurance that no silly god or final judgment awaits.
But if it’s true that death is a doorway into the throne room of God, then any calmness that the wicked experience on their deathbed is not a sign of peace—it’s a sign of paralysis. Like a paralyzed man who’s unwittingly been bitten by a snake, the wicked go through life blissfully unaware that deadly venom is, even now, coursing through their veins.
If it’s true that death is a doorway into the throne room of God, then any calmness that the wicked experience on their deathbed is not a sign of peace—it’s a sign of paralysis.
The wicked might live prosperously and die peacefully, but theirs is a temporary peace that leads to endless death. Once Asaph understood that eternal destruction awaits the wicked, he was ashamed he’d ever wished to trade places (vv. 21–22).
Pain That Leads to Life
As the plot of Wit unfolds, the pain from Vivian’s cancer treatments leads her to a kind of salvation. Prior to her cancer, Vivian’s unmatched wit had earned her much success—but had also led her to be self-reliant and relationally detached with an air of highbrow superiority. Yet by the end of her cancer treatments, Vivian is less assured of her wit, confesses her weaknesses, and develops a childlike dependence on her lowbrow nurse, Susie.
By the final minutes of Vivian’s life, her childlike transformation is complete. Professor Ashford visits and offers to read John Donne’s poetry, but Vivian declines. It’s telling that, on her deathbed, she refuses the very thing that had been the means of her earthly prosperity.
Instead, Vivian nestles into Ashford’s arms as the old professor reads a children’s book about a little bunny who dreams of running from home and turning into something better than a bunny. When the mother bunny promises to run after him, he says, “Shucks . . . I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.” Professor Ashford comments, “Look at that. A little allegory of the soul. No matter where it hides, God will find it. See, Vivian?” With one final word, Vivian agrees.
Asaph also would agree. Though he had acted like an ignorant animal (v. 22) and thought to run from God, he rejoiced to know that God would never leave him (v. 23) and reflected on three benefits God’s presence imparted. God would: (1) sustain Asaph with his own hand, (2) guide Asaph with his own counsel, and (3) receive Asaph into his eternal presence upon death (vv. 23–24).
Compare these immeasurable blessings to the poverty of the wicked, who had only their own strength and wit to sustain and guide. Though some may find these resources sufficient to earn them a prosperous life and peaceful death, they’re woefully insufficient for what lies beyond the grave. Having lived and died as though God were absent, they’ll awake from death’s short sleep to find their wish eternally fulfilled.
After making this comparison, Asaph found renewed joy from the realization that his circumstances were not nearly as dire as he once thought. On the contrary, the pain he once lamented turned out to be a blessing of another kind, a heavenly fulcrum that God used to lift him from the pit of self-reliance and send him running to find life and lasting satisfaction in God’s presence alone.
Contrary to human wit, a good life and good death isn’t defined by any peace the wicked might enjoy, nor is it denied by any pain the righteous might endure.
In thanksgiving, he declares: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (vv. 25–26).
“Only when man’s life comes to its end in prosperity can one call that man happy,” wrote the ancient playwright Aeschylus. This is true—depending on what a person thinks it means to “prosper.” As Asaph learned, we dare not trust our wits to define it.
Contrary to human wit, a good life and good death isn’t defined by any peace the wicked might enjoy, nor is it denied by any pain the righteous might endure. No matter our external circumstances, to be “far from God” (v. 27) is the highest form of suffering, but to be “near to God” (v. 28) is the highest form of prosperity—even in death.