Sometime during the next century I’ll probably die. Old dudes tend to think about that once in a while.

The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis died in 1973. His brother Warren was very close to him, especially during his last years. Warren arranged for his burial, including the placement of a headstone, bearing the inscription, “Men must endure their going hence.” Most 21st Century Americans would have to have help identifying that as a line from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Shakespeare wrote some delightful comedies, but this is one of his darkest tragedies. From an online site, I learned about the context of this quote in the play: after a series of alliances and backstabbings, love relationships and betrayals, murders, lost battles and ultimate hopelessness, Edgar finds his father, the Earl of Gloucester, near the battlefield, blinded and helpless, and he says to him, “Men must endure their going hence,” that is, their death.

A more complete quote from Act 5, Scene 2 of King Lear helped me to understand Edgar’s sad wisdom:

What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither.

Not much comfort to his father! But what he’s saying is true: We all like to talk about our “coming hither” — our birth, growth and accomplishments that brought us to this point, but we have to “endure” talking about or thinking about our “going hence,” even though we don’t want to.

 While I was digesting these heavy Shakespearean thoughts, I discovered that there was still more to Edgar’s words to his father:

What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither.

Ripeness is all. Come on.

Within King Lear, Edgar’s meaning seems to be pretty cynical: “If the time for your death is ripe, you’ll die; there’s nothing you can do about it. Come on; let’s get it over with.”

However, I was delighted to learn of another way to interpret Edgar’s words, and I’m claiming that meaning over Edgar’s (and probably Shakespeare’s). Maurice Sendak, the author of the popular children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, which was made into a 2009 movie, quoted the “Ripeness is all” phrase while reflecting, as an old man, on his life journey:

My big concern is what I do now until the time of my death. That is valid. That is useful. That is beautiful. That is creative. I want to see me in the end working, living positively: “Ripeness is all.”  Now, determining what ripeness is is our own individual problem. But the point of it all is not leaving legacies, but being ripe. Being ripe.2

In a 2004 interview, Sendak talked about a letter poet John Keats wrote to his brother describing eating a peach slowly, as a metaphor for living well:

Let it go through your palette. Let it lie on your tongue. Let it melt a little bit. Savor everything that happens in your life. But it must be ripe to be that delicious. For Keats, this was his life as an acknowledged poet. I want to get that ripe. 3

C.S. Lewis, Maurice Sendak, John Keats — all very different. But they have this in common: they have had to “endure going hence.” I will too. But until then, I want to affirm that Ripeness is all, that late in my life, I’m better prepared to live well than ever before. I want to celebrate the days I still have, fully enjoying the gift of life God has granted me, and in a way that shows my gratitude to him though the way I care about others.      

— Pastor George Van Alstine

1 Warren died three years later, and his name was added to the gravestone outside of Oxford, UK:

3 Moyers interview –

There’s a wonderful Stephen Colbert interaction with Maurice Sendak, done in January 2012, just three months before Sendak’s death: