Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? – 1 Corinthians 15:55
An opinion piece written in the New York Times came across my feed the other day that really piqued my interest. The title read “Why We Never Die”*, and in this piece the author Gabriel Rockhill describes his own childhood fear of death, and his attempts to talk with his son who is now experiencing the same fears. I was drawn to this piece because of my own childhood preoccupation with death, and because I find myself so very interested in the conversations we have about such an integral yet unknown part of life. How do we talk to children about death? How do we talk to ourselves about it? What are the stories, and beliefs, and theories we create to help us cope with what, for many of us, is the most fundamental terror?
My own fears began somewhere around second or third grade. I remember my mother and I were watching a television show about ancient cultures on the History Channel. The host was exploring Mayan ruins in Mexico and Guatemala, and talking about the beautiful cultural heritage of the Mayan people. The show discussed Mayan architecture and agriculture, spiritual beliefs, and their stunning knowledge of astronomy. This last focus is what really caught my attention. The host described the way the Mayan people were able to use this astronomical knowledge to calculate incredibly precise lunar months and astronomical events such as solar eclipses. The Mayans used this knowledge to create a very exact calendar that has fascinated archaeologists and anthropologists for years. This calendar was the subject of some hysteria a few years ago when a misinterpretation had people believing that the calendar implied some kind of cataclysmic event in December of 2012. It was this misinterpretation that forced me to first acknowledge my own mortality. As the host of this History Channel show discussed the Mayan calendar and its precision, he pointed out that many people believed that it may actually predict the date of the end of the world.
The end of the world. These words didn’t seem to hit me at first. The show ended and it was time for me to get ready for bed. I got up and went to get my bath ready. As I sat in the tub these words rattled around my head. The end of the world. I wondered what this would look like. Would the Earth just explode? Would we be hit by a meteor? What would happen after that? Slowly it began to grip me. Would I be here to experience this end? And if not then where would I be? Would I simply not exist? Would my family and friends cease to exist? Tears welled up in my eyes and before I knew it I was sobbing uncontrollably. My mother burst in after a few moments, I’m sure afraid I was hurt or something.
“What’s wrong, what’s wrong?”, she asked.
“I don’t want to die” is all I could get out through the tears.
My poor parents. What a difficult conversation it must be to have with a child. Wanting to console and comfort, yet understanding that death is a reality that can not be denied. For many months I struggled to fall asleep. Rockhill’s experience as a child was nearly identical to my own. He says “It was often in the twilight hours, between the moment of lying down and the imperceptible instant of slipping off to sleep, that the terror would arise”*. The routine was always the same for me. I would lay down, close my eyes, and just at that moment where you feel yourself falling asleep, the fear would grip me. It felt like nearly falling off the edge of a cliff. The dark pit in my stomach and the adrenaline racing. It seemed to me that this moment was what nothingness felt like. As if I had experienced a brief moment of non-existence. I didn’t like it.
Many therapy sessions and years later, I still find myself experiencing these moments from time to time. Always the same. The difference now is my willingness to lean into those moments, and to wrestle with the uncertainty. I agree with Rockhill that religion and spirituality could not offer me the certainty about life after death that I wanted. As I grew into Christian community and spiritual practice, I never found certainty, only more questions. I’ve always envied people who have such a strong belief in heaven or the afterlife. I often wish I felt so sure. That being said, I have found that so much of the meaning I find in the words of Christ and the tradition of Christianity, has everything to do with my willingness to live now, in spite of the reality of my own death. I really appreciate Rockhill’s assessment that:
“There is, as well, a psychosocial dimension that survives our biological withdrawal, which is visible in the impact that we have had — for better or worse — on all of the people around us. In living, we trace a wake in the world…This should not be taken as a form of spiritualist consolation, however, but rather as an invitation to face up to the ways in which our immanent lives are actually never simply our own” *
Is Christ not saying the same when he is asked to explain which commandment in the law is greatest? Jesus replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” **. Your lives are never simply your own. To love your neighbor as yourself is infinitely more than some simple act of service. It has the ability to reverberate beyond your very existence. It is in this intimate and often messy experience of community that our lives find persistent meaning beyond our own biological death. I know for myself, the moments of terror almost always appear when I am alone (either physically or mentally), and it is always the love of family, friend, and neighbor that offers the greatest solace. Of course, I may struggle with this fear for the rest of my life, but thanks be to God for those communities where we can find love that persists even when we cease to.
**Holy Bible NRSV