St Jerome watches car crash

Car crashes, especially involving many deaths, are a perennially popular topic in the news. A really big crash can be counted upon to double traffic to a news website. Are we sick? What are we doing checking up on the unimaginable sufferings of others?

© Gareth Fuller/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Our habits may look deranged and mean, but they’re evidence of something touching and sincere: that we’re looking for the meaning of life.

By looking at crashes, we are reminding ourselves of the brevity and precariousness of earthly existence. This doesn’t have to induce madness or despair, indeed, it can sharpen our awareness of what there is to appreciate and usefully refocus our minds on essentials. Far from rendering life meaningless, the thought of death may act as a catalyst to help us discover what we truly believe and want.

One of the greatest saints of the Christian tradition was the fourth century Roman scholar and historian St Jerome. Jerome was known for his obsession with death, it is a continuous theme in his writing, and when he is depicted in art, he is almost always shown in the company of a skull. He recommended that all of us keep a skull in our studies or bed chambers, so that we will never be far from reminders of the brevity of earthly life.

Jerome was not morbid. He just knew that a vivid awareness of death is critical to the management of a flourishing life.

This Netherlandish portrait of Jerome finds him aged and sunk in thought: once he was young – he ran about the fields, he climbed trees and he got excited when he was given a piece of cake. He had a successful career. His efforts were rewarded. Now he’s old and it’s time to rehearse the brutal facts once more. The sand in the hourglass will soon run through. The book Jerome is reading has a picture in it of the Crucifixion. Jesus, the person Jerome has most admired, is meeting his death. Despite his preparation, he remains a little bewildered – how can this happen to me? How can it be that I, who am alive now, will one day be nothing? Jerome is turning over in his mind the harshest truth any of us ever have to face.

Jerome was fortunate in one particular respect; he operated in an intellectual climate that was frank about the inevitability and centrality of death. We are rather more coy. We don’t put skulls on the desk. We don’t talk about the topic as Jerome did. But in our own way, we are still seeking reminders of how fragile and vulnerable we are, and how quickly it may all end. We simply have replaced skulls with news reports. They are to our societies what skulls were to Jerome’s – or at least, they have the potential to function in the same way. We’re not always being ghoulish in contemplating disasters: we may be trying to work out what we should do with the time that remains to us.