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?