Death is not found just six-feet-under
So the word for the day is, simply, death.
It’s a Lenten thing in part, you see, but I like to talk about death anyway because I worry that (within the Christian community at least), we tend to talk about death only at funerals, during Lent, on Good Friday, and maybe a passing triumphal reference on Easter.
The word comes from the Old English deað, which relied on something linguists call the Proto-Germanic Source (a possible language which served as an ancestor to both English and German). In Proto-German, the word dauthaz merged dau, meaning ‘die,’ and thuz meaning, interestingly, ‘act, process, or condition.’
Yesterday I was having a conversation with a person who found out with great relief that s/he didn’t have a fatal tumor, but rather a much more garden-variety, bothersome ailment. “So I’m not dying!” said this person. “Well,” not particularly comfortingly I suppose, “you are, but probably not as quickly as you had thought!”
Just like the etymology teaches us, we are all and always in the act, process, or condition of dying.
We just don’t like to actively think about it.
One of my goals is to help people employ the concepts and language of faith in a regular way. It’s a habit of integration, I suppose, or the “relevance” part of OMG’s “relevance, reverence, and renewal.”
Let’s do death.
So death comes in all sorts of different forms. Just yesterday (it was a busy day yesterday!) I told the story to someone about how during an adult education class some time ago, I had the participants brainstorm for all the ways that death appears in our lives. I started them off by giving the example of the death of a relationship and the death of a job loss.
They caught on quickly.
Divorce, addiction, low self-esteem, children not living up to expectations, care-giving for parents, anxiety and stress, feelings of being overwhelmed, fear of failure, financial worries, tragedies, constant exhaustion; it was a regular deluge of death.
And then one bright elderly woman who had recently moved to an independent living facility said, “The death of boredom.”
I said, not at all pastorally and completely shaped by my own harried life, “Oh! I would so love to die that death!”
I think that were we to to be more conscious of death, to see its presence more readily than just when somebody is buried (or will be soon), we would appreciate the power (need?) of daily hope and communal support much more deeply.
Death also makes itself present in the shape of fear and threat. We shape many of our key decisions thanks to death, like “But what if…?” “I’m too scared.” “It might not work.” “I’d probably lose.”
On any given day, we cede amazing amounts of power to death in all its forms.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to shape our lives on the basis of hope and possibility instead of on death?
So to return to the etymology, we are, indeed, constantly in the process of becoming dead.
But do we want to be defined by that?
What else could define us, and on what basis? Could we also say that we are constantly becoming alive more powerfully than becoming dead? If so, how and by what?
What do you think?
Anna, I have no earth shattering responses to your blog her but do want you to know how much I enjoy reading them. You give us so much to meditate on. Ever read Denial of Death by Ernest Beck? I think most of us live our lives denying that we will ever die until we are confronted with the imminent fact and the unknown makes that thought feel cold and hard rather than joyful that we will soon be free from stress, pain – both emotional and physical, worry, etc. What a concept if we could only embrace that fact rather than deny it. Then maybe we wouldn’t be so caught up in thinking that life here on earth should be as good as in heaven, i.e. “having everything we want”; “God’s wants me to be happy after all so why shouldn’t I do this or that?”; “why is there suffering?””WHy did …..have to die?” Is it our minds that limit us?
Oops, did I say Beck or Becker? It’s Becker…..
Yes, Diane, I do know about The Denial of Death, and in fact it plays a role in my thinking about death, anxiety, and hope. Thanks for noting it!
One of the tricks, it seems to me, is to negotiate tenderly the temptation which often moves between the two poles of looking forward to a release from pain and grief (or simply looking forward to our concept of heaven) and denigrating (or simply unappreciating) earthly, earthy life.
Two lines of thought show the danger of either of these views taken to an extreme.
The first considers the tradition of devaluing, even disdaining, “this life,” the earth, creation.
As an antidote to this perspective, I once heard an amusing observation that Jesus must have been at parties often enough for the accusation that he was a drunkard and a glutton to stick! That is, as an embodied creature, he loved creation incarnate.
(Few theologians can make this point as euphorically as Robert Farrar Capon. Read anything of his [even his cookbooks] and you get a sense of his passion for life and love.)
And of course, we should never forget that when God created the world, God called it “Tov,” good, even “Tov meod,” very good!
A fantastic way to think about that is the cult-movie favorite “Babette’s feast.” The tiny, pious Danish (or Norwegian, depending on whether your read the book) community lived a terribly ascetic life. In the end (movie spoiler) Babette was able to move the aging group beyond water into joyous wine. The movie is resplendent with Christian, and particularly Eucharistic, imagery.
From a Jewish/Christian perspective, then, creation is good, and should be savored, relished, and celebrated.
The second response attends to the yearning for the beyond which can lead to a dismissal, a loathing, of this life that manifests itself in a desire to die.
Camus said that suicide is the only critical philosophical question. Is there any reason to get up in the morning? What YES overcomes an otherwise resounding NO?
Often people refer to somebody “taking their life.” Another way to view that, I’ve heard, is that because this life becomes too overwhelming, they give their life back.
Either way, we have troubles, troubles that yearning for the other side doesn’t help.
I find that it helps to consider ourselves as “ambassadors of the reign of God.” How can we in our day-to-day lives show forth the reign of God, a reign that repeatedly bases itself on doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly, forgiving, welcoming, feasting, sharing, and loving?
In this way we see our lives as a reflection of God’s nature, as well as God’s love for us and for all that God created.
What do you think?