Matters of Life and Death

I wrote this in my journal a few months ago:

To live, you must die. That’s a central idea to the Christian faith, one I am pondering in a new way as I work through my doubts.

I look in the mirror and see a dying woman. I feel and look so alive – healthy, vibrant, strong. But I know, deeper in my bones than ever, that I will die. I will go the way of all flesh. Ironically, yet so cliche, I face my doubts about immortality at the same time of life when I face the plain truth of my own impending demise.

It’s been weighing on me, pushing me towards despair, though I’ve been standing against it stubbornly, unmoving. But in not moving towards despair, I am also not moving towards life.

And so this “die to live” thing is making a new kind of sense to me. It’s like homeopathy. I can see death coming, inevitable. Instead of fighting it by standing still against the push of despair, I will go with death. I will embrace its truth, let it really sink in, body and soul.

Yes, I will die. Yes, my end is inevitable.

I think as it sinks in, I’ll live more freely. I’ll stop holding everything tight and closed, and let life flow. For all its worth.

A few nights ago my five-year-old son chose the wonderful book John Henry by Julius Lester for his bedtime story, and I read this: “Dying ain’t important. Everybody does that. What matters is how well you do your living.”

And earlier this year I listened more than once to the poignant interview Terry Gross had with author Maurice Sendak, the last she would have with him before he died. “Live your life, live your life, live your life,” were his parting words to her.

Unreasonable as it may be, I do still have faith that somehow I may exist beyond my inevitable end. But that is no longer what drives me to live. Maybe I’m making the reverse of Pascal’s Wager – just in case God does not exist, and this one life is all there is to me, shouldn’t I give it everything I’ve got?

Religion has worked long and hard to remove the fear of death from the human psyche, but the result is often a denial or suppression of that fear rather than a removal of it. And in denying our fear, we forgo the opportunity to face it and grow stronger in our real and present life. We pass up the challenge of summoning the courage and vision to live well even in the blank face of apparent meaninglessness.

One of the most haunting parables of Jesus, for me, is the parable of the talents. A master went away and left his servants in charge of different sums of money. When he returned, two of them had invested the money and made more money, and he rewarded them. The third one had hidden the money to keep it safe until the master returned. The master angrily took the money he had hidden and gave it to the other servants, then threw him out of the house.

Elsewhere Jesus said, if you save your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life you will save it.

These words touch me now, differently than when I heard them preached in church. I’m hearing “risk” and “gamble” and “go big or go home.” I’m looking death right in the face, unable to see past or around that face, aware that with every moment I really live, I step closer to that cold, inscrutable face.

But I know there is no other way. I can live boldly right there in front of death’s face, or I can try to hide from death, but either way, death will find me. And when that finally happens, I want to know in those last moments that I have grown my one life into something richer and fuller than what I started with.

Rethinking one’s faith often includes the shock of new uncertainties in these matters of life and death. How has it been going for you?

7 Comments

  1. I think part of the problem is that so many Christians believe that sin is the problem that Christianity tries to solve thus making death the finish line that removes humanity from the sinful state. A closer reading of scripture and of Christian history, particularly in the East, shows death to be the actual problem that Christianity seeks to solve. Death is not the finish line. It is a tragedy. A tragedy of our making every time we chose anything other than life. For so many reasons we are not creatures well oriented to life. The hope is not in a death that passes us into life, but in a Life that solves death.

    • Thanks for your comment. I apologize that it didn’t get up here sooner – I went to work on a new post today and saw I had four comments in my “spam” folder, and that is where your and Lindsay’s comments were automatically directed by WordPress’s autobot. I can’t understand why. Guess I should look through that folder more often.

      I’m interested in this concept you introduced. I learned that death is the “ultimate penalty” for sin, or in less judgmental terms, the “natural consequence” of sin – so that the two are inextricably linked. But now, thinking of life in terms of evolutionary development, I have been rethinking the concept of original sin or the fall of humanity. I think there is a reality that is being described by the “fall” metaphor in Genesis, and maybe that reality is what you are speaking of – our difficulty in choosing life over death.

      It seems that at our most basic, primal level, we instinctively choose life. But as far as I am aware, we are the most intelligent and self-aware beings in the universe, and it is at these higher levels of thought/emotion/behavior that we run into complexities that can lead us to despair and self-destructiveness. I think these complexities can also lead us to greater life and joy and wonder, but I’m still trying to figure out how exactly. (And maybe that’s my problem – trying too hard to figure it out.)

      Talk more about your last sentence if you’re willing – it’s intriguing. What do you mean by “a Life that solves death”?

      • Sin and death are inextricably linked, but not in a juridical sense. Sin is a word that is loaded with a thousand years of Anselmian baggage and carries connotations that it does not deserve. In the Greek, in most cases it means to miss the mark. It doesn’t mean that we have vilely offended God and transgressed His sovereignty such that divine justice must be appeased by guiltless blood. We screw up and don’t always choose life or choose (or might not be capable of choosing for many and varied reasons) to participate in the divine energies of God, the source of life and that leads to corruption and death, both spiritually and physically.

        I don’t mean to down play sin. It is a huge problem, but it ultimately is not THE problem. We were meant to participate in God’s nature and divine energies, to be partakers of life. Instead we brought degeneration.

        I think at our most basic, primal level, we try to avoid death at all costs. I’m not sure we actually choose life though. We hoard land, food, money, clothing, and weapons. We wage violence against our neighbors (both near and far), use and manipulate each other, and destroy the world around us to try to survive another day. True life happens in those moments when we forgot about “living”. I don’t mean reckless abandon. I mean when we enter into a moment and give ourselves to it and actually experience it without trying to take something from it, if only a memory. I can only speak for myself, but those moments are rare and fleeting and seem to exist outside the spectrum of self awareness. Almost a supraconscious state where it no longer matters who you are, it matters simply that you are. And that state is the aim of the spiritual life because it is there that we are able to see God, who when asked His name said, “I am”.

        Physical death is a mercy in a sense. To exist forever in a state of continual degeneration would be true punishment. Death being merciful does not make it natural though and God seeks to solve death. There is an ancient Easter hymn that says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” Death isn’t a thing to itself, it is the absence of life. So if the author and source of life enters into death, how can death not be destroyed? It no longer has the power to hold us. Our bodies still die though because we continue to choose things other than life, for reasons known and unknown, conscious and unconscious. But God is greatly merciful and loves mankind. That is one of the great hopes of Christianity.

        Maybe I have it all wrong though. I don’t know.

        Forgive me for the sermon.

      • Coemgen, we got far enough in conversation here that we reached the limit of WordPress’s reply hierarchy. That’s encouraging 🙂 Thanks for your 8/18 comment above. If it is a sermon, there is nothing to forgive. You bring out some significant ideas that I found helpful in thinking about all this.

  2. This is along the same lines as a book I’m reading right now called Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom. In it, he writes, “Always remember that whether you are alive or dead matters nothing. What matters is what you life for and what you are prepared to die for.” He also encourages us, as Christians, not to fear death. He writes that if death is nothing but defeat, the end of life, it is not pleasant for us to face. But if confront death appropriately, it will no longer be something for us to fear or dread.

    I think it is scary for many of us to consider death because it is such a loss of control, but maybe if we learned the process of giving up control in the meantime, our inevitable ends wouldn’t be so frightening.

    • hi Lindsay – thank you for your comment. I apologize for the delay in posting it here. It was quarantined in WordPress’s spam folder and I didn’t notice until today. What was that autobot thinking?!

      Your last sentence so resonates with me. Sometimes I try to take more inspiration from the smaller animals around me – the squirrels and rabbits and even the house flies – as well as young children who haven’t learned or comprehended the concept of death. These creatures “live and move and have their being” in the fullness of each moment, day in and day out. My capacity for joy and a full life is even greater, but only if I can connect my big-picture intelligent consciousness with that basic ability to live fully in the ordinary moments.

      One of the best things I’ve been working on lately is learning my own limits, and working from within them. And death certainly feels like the ultimate limit. I think you’re right – that exercise of letting go in our everyday lives can actually expand our lives as we live them, and prepare us for the last and biggest letting-go we have to face.

      Thanks for the book quote – another title added to my “to-read” list!

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