How We Die

Choosing Your Path: Supernova or Candle

Imagine you were given the following choice: would you choose to have your life end like a supernova, which involves one of the largest and brightest events in the universe, or would you choose to have your life end like a candle, which eventually just quietly flickers and fades before extinguishing itself?

If I had the choice, I’d choose the candle’s exit strategy. The reason has little to do with how the candle or giant star dies and everything to do with how it “lived.” During its lifetime, a giant star consumes enormous amounts of energy each second. One conservative estimate states that this totals something on the order of 8 billion pounds of hydrogen per second! Giant stars live for about 100 million years, while smaller stars like the one lighting up our days, being more humble than their giant celestial cousins, burn for about 13 billion years, or 130 times longer!

How We Live Shapes How We Die

But, not once during its lifetime, do celestial giants ignite other heavenly lights. They stand alone. They shine alone. And, when they do finally burn through their fuel reserves, they can collapse in a massive solar catastrophe that flares for a few months as a supernova, emitting more light than the whole galaxy of which it is a member, and then shrinks into a dense black hole that spends eternity sucking the celestial life out of anything that comes within reach of its incredible gravitational field. Once a “selfish” bully, always a bully.

Contrast the star’s “life” with that of a candle. Infinitely smaller, it also emits light. For centuries, candles lit homes and helped quiet the fears of the night experienced by the people who sat by its modest flame. The candle flame was an easy source of comfort. Today, candles play an important role in setting moods, usually joyful, often romantic and calming. More importantly, a candle can be used to light other candles, even as it begins to burn down. What is easily overlooked is that no matter how many wicks a single candle flame lights, the first candle’s light doesn’t diminish. Instead, it multiplies.

Creating a Lasting Legacy

To be able to share one’s light with others, to ignite their fire, to not be threatened by their light but to share and revel in multiplied light: that’s the quality I admire. And, that’s why, if I had the choice, when my time finally comes, I’d choose to go out like a candle. What could be more comforting than to know how many lights we’ve lit and how we’ve left the world a brighter place for having been in it.

I am currently taking a course on character development based on ancient and contemporary Jewish wisdom practices (Mussar, meaning moral conduct or discipline). I recently learned that an important step on the road to elevating one’s character is the practice of humility which, as one author said, can be expressed by the motto: “no more than my space; no less than my place.” I think a candle lives that way. On the other hand, too many in our world live their lives like a giant star. They shine bright. They take up a lot of space. They don’t share. And, as they finally prepare to leave the stage, they attempt to suck the life out of those they leave behind!

Holiday Wishes

My wish this holiday season, which for so many faith traditions involve uses for joyful candle light, is that we learn to practice humility during the days of our lives with the intention of creating a legacy that has resulted in others’ lives being brightened by our presence even as we found a way to occupy “no more than our appropriate space, but no less than our legitimate place.”