I subscribe to a rather interesting series of books from Reader's Digest. It is called "The world's best reading" and it is full-text, hardcover versions of whatever they decide fits that description. I've read some things like Uncle Tom's Cabin through this series that I really appreciate. Even though I already own many of them and their come-on says "Take only the ones you want," that simply means that if you return one they assume you don't want any more. I know, because I tried that with another series they were sending me. Every two months I get another book, and if nothing else, it's interesting to see what it will be. Usually in October they send me some sort of horror novel in honor of Halloween. I've gotten Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera (do you suppose anyone else has actually read it?), Dracula and others, so I was surprised when I got Howard's End by E. M. Forster. I suppose they've run out of horror literature that they want to call the world's best reading. Anyway, to my own surprise I really enjoyed Howard's End. What's more, I got a sermon title out of it. One of the main characters said at one point something like, "Death is destruction, but the idea of death is life-giving." I'm not certain those were the exact words, but it was certainly the thought. And it was, I think, absolutely true.
We have seen too much of the destruction of death recently. Too many of those we love have died or are or have been in danger of death. Death is truly the destroyer of bodies, of relationships, of dreams of the future that include those who have died. There are differing beliefs among us about what happens after death, but for many of us it also destroys the personality of the one we have known and loved. Those who die are truly gone, not just from us but from the world that nurtured them and the universe that held them.
Some people believe otherwise, but we cannot have any guarantees -- the evidence is too slim. I do, in fact, believe in two kinds of eternal life, but neither of them is very comforting since in neither of them is the individual we mourn still in any sort of existence as him- or herself. I offer them to you as speculation only -- as a jumping off point for your own thoughts with no intent to persuade. (I have to say that because if Walt Barnes were here he would be taking notes, ready to refute me at our next conversation.) The first one, I think, is based on hard fact. By our mere existence, the fact that we were a certain arrangement of atoms, molecules, cells, we have made a permanent change in the universe. That change, that influence, will last as long as the universe lasts. Because each of us, as individuals, existed, everything from now on is different with an ever-widening effect. In addition, of course, the atoms that make up our bodies existed long before we did and will continue to exist. They will be in different arrangements, some quite likely in other living things, some in the earth around us, some, perhaps, joining the stars again, but they were, for a brief time, our own. Immortality of that sort is inevitable. My other belief is mystical, unprovable, though it can't be disproven, and little if any more comforting to those who have lost one whom they love. I believe that there are certain transcendent, eternal ideals such as truth and love, justice and compassion, beauty and goodness, integrity and courage. As we serve them and contribute to them we enter into their eternity. To make that idea even less helpful, I don't think that those ideals have a real existence as Plato did, or even the neo-Platonists, so it becomes even less to be grasped. For me, however, it has a flavor of immortality.
Even for those who do believe in something more, a life after death, a continuance of personality, death is the destroyer and we fear it. We fear it by instinct for ourselves. Evolution is for the survivors and so our instinct to survive is paramount. Physical threats create an immediate physical response in our whole bodies. Even if some people are so unhappy as to be seriously contemplating doing away with themselves, any threat will create the same survival response. In Oregon, where doctor assisted suicide is legal, very few of those who sign up for it actually go through with it. The instinct for survival is too strong and to the end we can deny that death will inevitably visit us. We also fear it, perhaps more and perhaps more rationally, for others. The loss of someone we love can be devastating. Death is the destroyer.
But what about the idea of death? How can it be life-giving? Logically we know that we will die, but often we don't really believe it. I suspect that one of the reasons that teenagers drive so recklessly is that they don't really believe deep down inside that it is possible for them really to die. That may be, too, why there is such a high rate of suicide among teens. The finality, the reality of death hasn't really struck home. It came to me when I had my first child. It wasn't that I was anywhere near death at the time. I was fine and so was he. Nevertheless I began to be fearful riding in a car, which I never had been before, and having nightmares in which I died in various creative ways -- also an entirely new phenomenon. It was that suddenly my life had achieved a new importance. My baby was entirely dependent on me. The possibility of my dying mattered in a way that it never had before. I had to confront the reality that my life was finite. It also had, quite objectively, a new importance. That's also when I started going to church. There were other factors; I doubt that that would have been sufficient motivation by itself, but I don't think, either, that it was without significance.
Someone once said that religion is what you do with the realization that you are going to die. That may be as good a definition as any, and it is what the character -- Helen was her name -- in Howard's End meant when she talked about the idea of death. There are those, far too many, who reduce religion to the worship of a deity. It is far more than that and doesn't have to be that at all. It is instead the institutional structure within which we seek the meaning of life, create it, celebrate it and practice it. When asked what makes life meaningful people give many different answers, but the ones that seem to have an underlying truth, one that never fails them, is that their lives are made meaningful when they are dedicated to something greater than themselves whatever it may be. For many it is a deity, but for many, as for me, it is not.
When you realize, truly realize, that you are going to die, the meaning of your life becomes important. If you find it or create it your own death no longer matters much. If you don't you descend into nihilism. One of the Edgar Allen Poe stories that always horrified me was "The Masque of the Red Death" (Poe's stories were one of the best reading Halloween selections. I already had it). There, as the plague was sweeping the country, people responded with denial, with a frenetic, half-insane merry-making. It did not keep death away and their lives were shown up as entirely without meaning. Far better to be the monk who, while hoeing his garden, was asked what he would do if he knew he would die tomorrow and answered, "I would go on hoeing my garden." He had discovered the meaning of his life in service, and death would make no difference to him.
I think there's another kind of fear of death, though for me it is shown in anger, and that is the death of the very young or even those who are younger than they might be expected to be when they die, when they have not discovered life's meaning or have not been able to fully live it. When people have lived long fulfilled lives, though our personal loss may often be objectively greater, and so, often, is that of society, we can at least feel a satisfaction that the life was so fulfilled, that its potential was realized. There is not the sense of tragic waste that we feel when young people die before their time. For those who have lived such lives, death is no longer the enemy, and the idea of death was the giver of life -- life realized, life fulfilled.
Foolish people say -- and we are all foolish sometimes -- that death renders life pointless and futile. What is the point of life when the end is merely to die? So they create fantasies of eternal bliss or at least eternal something. Yet why would eternal life give it meaning? If life is meaningless eternal life is eternally meaningless. It is the idea of death, the realization that we must die that provides the creative purpose to make our lives worthwhile.
Yet death is still the destroyer; we still lose those we love; we still lose our own lives. Where in your arid theology of death as the end, uncompromising, unmitigated, is comfort? Shouldn't religion, they ask, provide comfort? If it has to offer fairy tales to do it, let it offer fairy tales. Let it describe a paradise of golden streets and gates of pearl. Let it promise that you will meet those you love again when you, too, have crossed the divide. They will be comforted. Well, perhaps they will if they can believe it.
There are, I think, people who can choose to believe things -- even things for which there is no evidence. Certainly many of the kind people who have tried to save my soul have told me so, that all I have to do to be saved is to believe what to them is so clearly the truth, and that I can do it if I try hard enough. Not only can't I do that, I can't even want to -- not even for the comfort that they assure me it would bring me. Paul himself, the shaper of the Christian faith had his problems with that. His prayer is a cry of the heart, "Lord, I believe. Help thou mine unbelief." Some of us are simply made for skepticism and doubt and the simple assertion that something is true based on dreams or visions of ancient texts is insufficient to convince us of anything. For us there can be no comfort in stories of an afterlife that seem impossible or even just unlikely.
Yet I think there can be comfort -- comfort for those who will die, in the idea of death which gives their lives meaning, and comfort even for those who linger in longing for those whom death has destroyed.
If we embrace life, understanding that it is fragile and temporary, answering its call to goodness and beauty, to all the things it asks of us to the best of our ability, at its end we are content. I had a dear friend who died much too young, but he said to me that he had done everything he had wanted to do in this world, and though he would certainly like to keep on doing it for a while longer, yet he was content. Death came to him as a friend while he was singing "This Little Light of Mine" with his children who were with him. Though he died many years ago, I mourn and miss him still, but with no regrets and no bitterness. That embrace of life can come even if you haven't achieved everything you set out to do, even if your life is filled with suffering and sorrow. We can't always control the things that happen to us, but we can meet them courageously and faithfully, responding from the best within us and doing the best we can. If we do that we can say with the monk that if we knew we would die tomorrow we would go on hoeing our garden.
But what of those of us who mourn? Where is our comfort? Those of us who have lost someone we love know that though death has destroyed them, though the best is lost, they are not entirely gone from us. They are with us in memory and we can often feel their presence, hear their voices, see their faces. We can allow their influence to continue to shape our lives, and in memory and tribute we can so live that our lives become deeper and more purposeful -- and meaningful. There is, however, another comfort, one that we can give as well as receive. We are not alone. Our brothers and sisters surround us and reach out to us in love. We need only hold out our hand.