Faith and Fear Part II: Death
Death has largely felt irrelevant in my life.
At the end of primary school, a close family friend died of cancer. But I was going on a school trip the week of the funeral and it was decided that I should still go: death wasn’t that relevant to me, was it?
A year later, I fell off my bike on holiday, racing my brother down a dusty hill, and sliced open my leg, almost severing my femoral artery. Were it not for the nearby presence of a recently-trained First Aider, I could easily have died, after twelve short years..
We in the West are born into a society that hides death and the emotions that attend it. Modern medicine has generally banished the dying from our everyday existence, allowing us to quickly brush past it. We believe ourselves to be invincible or put our faith in science, technology - even some divine being - for our salvation. There’ll always be a fix. A cure.
From my own near-death experience, I learnt not that I was mortal but rather that I had a mission yet to accomplish, that God (or the universe) was somehow protecting me from death to fulfill some great purpose. In short, I was too important to lose.
Faith lets us approach the fundamental fears of our existence
In Faith and Fear Part I, we looked at the fear-stories we live our lives by, comprising a stage, or worldview, and rules or scripts that govern our character and are built to reflect this worldview. These scripts may be more traditionally masculine or femenine, or a mixture of both. But we all, like a naive actor, unaware of the dramas of shame and powerlessness they are playing a part in, let these fear-stories lead us to tragedy, “success” or bland meaninglessness. In contrast, faith is that part of us that is connected enough to our inner reality that it still hears the quiet whispers of another story and another stage, of belonging, possibility and meaning.
But faith digs deeper than this. Like a well-dug well that draws clean water to the surface, so faith reaches into our soul and allows us to draw the waters of our spirit, our inner drive towards real life. And this spirit cries out to step off-stage for a while and face the reality behind it all: the paradoxes and fears of our existence. In this, and future, blogs, I’ll look at some of these fundamental ideas, the questions they pose, and the shallow answers we are given by society. I’ll also talk about the ways I’ve learned to approach them and, out of this, to live more meaningfully.
Fear listens to shallow consolations for the fundamental question death poses
My belief that I was too important to die so young was based on a worldview in which I was insignificant unless I did some great thing, achieved some mission, fulfilled the divinely-orchestrated plan for my life. Such grandiose fantasies are often founded on inferiority.
The worldviews that tuck death under the carpet or dismiss it with stories (fantasies) of invincibility and rescue are those that have prematurely answered the questions our mortality asks of us. Do I belong in a place where I exist only temporarily? Am I wanted here? What value or meaning can my short life have? And at the heart of these questions lies the most fundamental human fear: that we are all basically insignificant, our lives, basically meaningless.
For the most part, we live running from that fear, quickly learning what Carl Rogers calls ‘conditions of worth’: ways of proving our own value to ourselves and to society. I believe that many (if not all) of the stereotypically masculine roles are based on the need to define ways by which men achieve meaning and worth: breadwinner, protector, strongman, etc.
To help understand how these roles help to define us, we can put them as ‘if/then’’ statements (a helpful exercise if we want to work out what’s really driving our fears and the more unhelpful patterns of behaviour we can find ourselves stuck in). For example: if I provide for my family/achieve career success/sleep with lots of women/become competent at DIY, then I will be accepted as a man, approved of by others, get dad's attention: I will have meaning.
Alternatively, parts of us may have learned, through the insistent, critical message of worthlessness and incompetence, that these ways of proving ourselves are unavailable, at least to us. We are left with another script: that our meaning is only available vicariously through helping others. Thus, we absolutely cannot be awkward, noncompliant or challenging, but must be supportive, encouraging and understanding at all times (whatever the cost to ourselves) for our short lives to be of any worth.1
Unsurprisingly, these superficial answers to the underlying fear are not really answers at all - not in any permanent way. And so the fear raises its head again and again, as our life circumstances change. But instead of looking honestly at our own mortality, asking how we find meaning in light of it, rather than in spite of it, we simply move on to the next superficial marker of worth or way to be helpful.
Putting these rules as conditions of worth help show them up as utterly unjust to ourselves. They make me feel angry at them and especially the ones I have participated in. And anger is a very appropriate response!
Anger is our spirit’s drive for life breaking out, fighting for our own infinite value, along with the value of those and the world around us. The problem is that fear-scripts either manipulate anger so that it is part of meeting the conditions of being a man, the very conditions our anger must rage against, or disallows anger as far too unhelpful. Thus, our fears stop anger from disrupting the norms, dismantling the conditions and their answer to the fundamental question death poses.
I'm reminded of the story of Jesus getting angry at the temple and clearing the marketplace that had been set up there. Equally, these fears stop us from seeing how our inner temples have become a marketplace for worth. This is the busyness and noise that fills the quietness of our faith and tells us we are not welcome here. The marketplace where we try to buy the next thing that will make us acceptable, at the cost of our energy, time and selves. The tables where the value of our souls is valued and haggled. These fears prevent the anger of our spirit from turning over the tables which we return to again and again. They stop us from driving out what belittles us.
So, instead of getting angry at what really is unjust, we complain about other things and rage against one another. We keep moving through life without ever stopping long enough to question the stage we’re on.
Until we finally break.
Or we die.
Faith joins us to our spirit’s fight for the inherent, infinite value of our lives
It wasn’t until my late teens that I attended my first funeral. Even then, death was kept hidden from me: the coffin was kept closed. Grief, apart from a few tears, was silenced with a quiet, stiff upper lip and reverent liturgy. It was sombre. There was consolation from the fact that the person had long been taken by Alzheimer’s, leaving only a shell of who they had been. The (unacknowledged) idea that death was somehow - maybe - better?
It wasn’t until about a decade later that I really started to approach death. My Gran had cancer and, after a few years of fighting it and another disappointing scan, decided to let it run its course and honour the days she had left. At last I had to start to confront the fact that I would lose her. As part of that process, I wrote her a letter, the only bit of real correspondence we had had since I was in my teens. In it, I faced up to my regrets and gratefulness in our relationship. This led to a meeting and in that quiet, short conversation by her bedside she told me all about her life, her faith journey, and the things she still regretted. Here was a person who was approaching death with her eyes open.
A week later, I attended her funeral and heard about all the people she had touched, all the good she had done. And for the first time I grieved.
Our society has forgotten how to grieve. It’s forgotten the value of grief. It tries to control it and make it convenient: we are given two weeks of compassionate leave to come to terms with the deepest loss a person can feel. After that, we must rejoin productive society, lest we make too many feel uncomfortable.
But grief is our spirit’s response to death. Grief is a necessary step in walking beyond the stages we were born onto and toward the stages of belonging, possibility and worth. Grief is the appreciation of the value of our finite lives.
I’m learning to grieve for what I’ve lost in busying myself with trying to prove my place here. I’m learning to grieve for the parts of me that I’ve cut off as it didn’t belong on the stage. I’m learning to grieve for the relationships I lost or never had. I’m learning to feel my regrets and also accept the reasons I made them. I’m learning to grieve for all that died in or was lost by those I inherited my conditions of worth from. And as I do, I’m learning to value life.
You see, facing death does not devalue life. Death does not make our lives meaningless. Quite the opposite. It is the avoidance of death that demeans our existence. I alone will die my own death; I alone can live my own life. Death calls me to own my own life and value my freedom and worth. Death, after all, is only irrelevant if our lives are irrelevant. If life is infinitely valuable, then death is the necessary reminder to cherish it.
So, I’m trying new adventures, writing my own life story rather than following stale scripts. A story where my life and I already have worth and value.
Of course, I find myself slipping back into old ways of thinking, pulled back by others, events that trigger my underlying fears and my own inner critics. I have to prove my importance again. I return to the rush, pressures, hiding and busyness that work together to stop me from looking at my death and keep me living the fear-story with its backdrop of insignificance.
But, having looked at it once, I discover reminders of my mortality in this everyday life too. Watching an autumn leaf fall or float away downstream. Seeing loved ones age. Realising that, in choosing one path, I have closed the door on so many others - and wondering what drove me to make that choice. Sensing that my great ‘mission’ won’t ever come. Having children. ‘Celebrating’ another birthday
And, of course, experiencing a global pandemic where our helplessness in the face of nature’s power to kill is rubbed, daily, in our faces.
These reminders give me another opportunity to face my death, tap into my faith, feel my anger and grieve again. And the more I do so, the more I realise the infinite preciousness and worth that we all possess just by being who we are in this everyday, yet extraordinary, life.
It seems - e.g. from Brene Brown’s podcast with Drs Emily and Amelia Nagoski (https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-emily-and-amelia-nagoski-on-burnout-and-how-to-complete-the-stress-cycle/) - that this could be called a femenine script. However, I fear writing about the experiences of women and speaking for them, and I know that such scripts have played a significant part in my own life (as well as the more stereotypically masculine scripts described).