Fear of Death

Blogger’s Note: Have you ever, in the urgency and heat of a conversation, been pushed to consolidate and analyze a pattern of thinking you’ve been victim to for some time and share your findings before you’re certain they are fully baked? Well, I had that experience today. A dear friend was alarmed, in the midst of great blessings, to be suddenly afraid of death. As an emotional, navel-gazing kind of guy, I’ve been down this path more than once, so I worked to put my own cycle into words. And now it seems a part of a larger conversation, involving this post of mine and this post from our friend Deacon Tyler. Forgive the rambling and lofty sentence structures; I’ve been listening to St. Augustine during my commute these past few days. Now, onto the limb — here’s what I replied …

Yes, I do know somewhat of what you speak, I think. And sometimes these feelings are worse in moments of clarity and great joy, when you can see so vividly all you’ve been given (however unworthily!) and all you have to lose. At least, that’s been my case …

For me, the fear oscillates between that of an early death (before I’ve managed to complete what I view in that moment as my earthly duties) and the sudden loss of all that I have (namely, my wife and children) while I yet live. Both fears are more vivid in times of abundant blessing — a dark temptation to take no joy in joy: in one case, out of a natural but short-sighted tendency to cling to what we have without reference to (or reverence for) greater goods to come, and in the other case, to a natural but ill-conceived effort to steel ourselves against possible tragedy (however improbable) which, if taken too far, may lead us to view our blessings as curses (i.e., “Why am I burdened with such wonderful things I can only hope to lose?”).

When fearing an early death, I often want to abandon my livelihood and take my family to a mountaintop (as you’ve heard me say before!) where I can spend all my time eking out an existence, loving my wife, and teaching my children exactly what they need to survive and live uprightly — never mind the fact that Jodi would not regard such a retreat as an act of love, and I scarcely know how to survive and live uprightly myself, let alone how to teach such things. By living we learn — not by retiring.

When fearing the untimely loss of my family, I begin to imagine how I would react. It’s invariably heroic in its first draft — I soldier on, sorrowful and stoic — but with even a second’s worth of consideration, the smallest pinch of realism, I see my emotionally charged self falling utterly apart, at least for a time. How long? Who can tell? — I quickly conclude (true or not) that I’ve never been tested by want or direct and personal tragedy, and may well curl up in a ball and die myself. How unmanly! And I see my wife: so strong in faith, rock-solid, unyielding, and quickly conclude (true or not) that, were the tables turned, she would, in fact, soldier on, sorrowful and stoic. Why, if I were to die suddenly …

… and thus we return to the fear of an early death.

Life and death, that great unknown, is a deep, deep rabbit hole, into which some descend and never emerge. Better, perhaps, to stand at the edge and drop pebbles down, as we did as children, listening to see if and when they struck bottom, than to dig too deeply and collapse the whole thing upon us. A favorite (and to my knowledge, an original) saying on these subjects: We seek to explain the hell out of everything and explain the heaven out of it in the process. Or something like that.

Faith and doubt can both be gifts in moments like these — faith that, independent of what we do (or don’t do), the world and those we love move toward their proper end and all is (or will be) right in the world; and doubt that the proper end can ever be reached without our hand at the till or the oar, which may make us rethink our priorities and love each other more and better.

But the fear never leaves me entirely — and I feel everyday that I can never accomplish what I want, or what I should, or (some days) even what I must. I can only accomplish what I can, and thus far, it’s been just enough.

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