My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Over the years I have sat with many people as they draw close to the end of their life, and I have noticed that several find themselves frustrated by the short time they have left to say the final, important things to their loved ones. And as I continue to grow older I find myself pondering and asking, more and more, what I should hand on to my children, what valuable things do I want them to hear from me and take to heart. Peter Kreeft has launched a preemptive strike at that moment for his family by writing his short 244 page, readably warm hardback, “Before I Go: Letters to Our Children about What Really Matters.” Kreeft states that this book, written to his grown children, is simply a “word-insurance policy,” since it is “a way of speaking even after you are dead” (4). These are words written against the day when he may no longer be able to say what he deems important, to speak clearly before he goes.
Kreeft teaches philosophy at Boston College, which shines through in several chapters, particularly in the superb craftsmanship with which he is able to hone an idea down to its primary point, like the following; “Worship God, love people, and respect stuff” (54). He is also a loyal Roman Catholic who knows what he is and what he’s about. Both of these characteristics fill the creative reservoir out of which he is able, with wit and brevity, to refresh and regale the reader.
The short chapters in “Before I Go” are normally succinct, and last anywhere from three sentences to three pages. But the depth of insight vastly surpasses the quantity of ink and paper. For example, in one short chapter, he poignantly reveals to his offspring the two categories into which he sees that people generally fall, “There are only two kinds of people: sinners, who think they’re saints, and saints, who know they’re sinners. There are only fools, who think they’re wise, and the wise, who know they’re fools” (51). It becomes clear as one reads further that the writer is skilled at writing and skilled at writing in a memorable fashion. I found myself struggling to put the book aside because each chapter enticed me to jump to the next.
“Before I Go” covers a wide range of subjects. The author tackles life, death, marriage, procreation, hope, idolatry, motivations for doing and not doing things, prayer, understanding versus toleration, gratitude, real mysticism, and the list runs on through 162 petite pieces. Each of these subjects is personal, precise, perceptive, and piercing. As an example in Chapter 162, “The Last Word,” Kreeft deftly drives home his point, “No philosophy is worth your attention if it can’t be professed on your deathbed. No philosophy is as important as a person. And there is only one person who has the answer to death. You know His name. May His name be your last word, as it shall be mine” (254).
Kreeft’s realism pulsing through “Before I Go” is a two edged sword. The down-to-earth way he airs his thoughts makes him easily grasped and heartily appreciated, as can be seen in statements like this one: “We strut and fret and preen and pose, but only God can make a rose” (86). Yet his earthy approach may well catch some completely off guard, especially as he uses expletives on occasion. These are never gratuitous, but serve to drive home a valuable, salient point.
Reading this book will be a pure pleasure for the thoughtfully reflective, and a valuable gift for many parents to use in passing on wise words to their children before they lose the ability to say those final, important words. I warmly and heartily recommend this book.
(This review is an expanded and revised version of one done for Reader Views, November 2007. Mike)
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