A Reflection on Friends, Mortality and Eternity
November 20, 2023
by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA
The television sitcom Friends (1994 to 2004) aired when I was the same age and in the same stage of life as the friends themselves—mid-20s, single and trying to start adult life. I was squarely in the target demographic for the show, and my peers and I aged right along with Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey and Ross during those 10 years. Of course, the show had a fair amount of objectionable content, but the relationships among the six friends as they tried to survive the trials and tribulations of becoming independent young adults were both endearing and maddening, much like real friendships. I was not a faithful viewer of the show, given that it aired during my 10 “lost years” of medical school, residency, marriage, childbirth and parenting of infants/toddlers.
Faithful viewer or not, everyone my age knew the names and basic plot lines of the six friends, and we related to a variety of their struggles—job searches, earning enough to pay bills, getting along with roommates, navigating romantic relationships, understanding workplace politics, forging adult relationships with parents, maintaining friendships after marriage…. The friends were living fictional versions of our lives—just with a lot more relational drama, in much bigger apartments and seemingly with jobs that rarely required their actual attendance at work.
So, when Matthew Perry, the actor who played Chandler and who was less than a year older than me, died several weeks ago, it felt strangely personal, as if I had actually lost a friend.
I was surprised that the death of a celebrity, whom I did not know and was not likely to ever meet, caused such deep reflection. And yet, these kinds of moments in life always seem to do that. It’s as if we forget from day to day that our human bodies are, in fact, mortal and our days here are truly numbered. Then something happens to put us in the frame of eternity and to remind us that the essence of ourselves is immortal and eternal. And suddenly we begin to think about our priorities in a different way. The things that make sense when we are thinking in terms of today, or next week, or even in terms of retirement, don’t make sense anymore when we think in terms of eternity. And it is a truly weighty thing to realize that all the people with whom we interact every day are also image-bearers of God with an eternal destiny.
Pondering my own mortality and eternal destiny, as well as those of the people around me, might sound like morbid pastime. In fact, though, it causes me to lift my focus to God. The more I realize this earthly existence is a tiny fraction of eternity, the more important it becomes to focus on God’s perspective and align my priorities with His. A life misaligned with God’s priorities ends in death, followed by a tragic eternity, and leaves a legacy of little impact for good in the world around us. However, a life aligned with God’s priorities reaps dividends in this world, because it impacts so many other lives and refocuses so many other hearts toward God. In addition, it ends in eternity in the presence of God. These are weighty matters, indeed. How can they be so easy to forget in the scramble of daily life?
I suspect we are easily distracted. Television (even an episode of Friends), novels, hobbies, food and drink, work and now the ever-present phone all entice us to spend our time on things of little importance, while our fleeting time on earth speeds by and eternity fast approaches. Distractions abound all around us, and people build their careers on making the distractions more attention-grabbing, harder to turn off, more enticing. The billboards, commercials, movie trailers and social media algorithms all exist to suck us into their universe and convince us to spend money. And there is some element of them that tries to convince us to stay distracted, since the more time we spend there, the more money we spend.
Even though the things that distract us are empty, we look to them to fill us. We seek pleasure and convince ourselves we have found it. C.S. Lewis’ famous quote from The Weight of Glory reminds of the consequence of distraction: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Ultimately, as we allow ourselves to be distracted by empty things, we inadvertently choose to miss out on the infinite joy we could find in the meaningful, eternal things God has for us in His presence.
Let’s go about our days like a holiday at sea—understanding and appreciating the richness of life walking with God and His image-bearers on this earth and contemplating the eternity we will spend in His presence after this life ends. As we live life with this perspective, we will understand things differently. We will treat diabetes as an issue that needs to be addressed, but we will treat the heart and soul as the true needs of the patient. We will treat our friend’s divorce as a truly painful experience needing compassion, but we will treat the friend’s relationship with the Lord as the underlying foundational problem. We will be keenly aware that there “are no ordinary people [and that we] have never talked to a mere mortal…But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit…[Our] merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption” (as C.S. Lewis also wrote in The Weight of Glory). And, in so doing, we will impact the immortal souls around us for eternity and not just for some more trivial, temporal cause.