If there are illegitimate ways of coming to grips with death, there are equally pathological ways of refusing to come to grips with death or face up to our powerlessness before it:
- We can attempt to bury the recognition of our powerlessness by proving our potency — e.g., by relentlessly pursuing achievement so we can churn through that list of necessary successes: university degree (or two), travel abroad, career, spouse, mortgage, etc. All the while measuring ourselves against others. Congratulating ourselves when we’re out in front (because we’ve risen above our circumstances) and mentally qualifying the achievements of others out of existence (because they had an unfair social, financial or genetic advantage).
It's just a bit empty...
- Or we can do it in search of security — finding that ideal person or job, the respectable equivalent of an underground concrete bunker kitted out so we can survive the harshest nuclear winter. If not that, then perhaps we cling to being free from attachment, risk, commitment. Never opening ourselves up, making ourselves vulnerable, or trying something at which we might fail. Impoverishing ourselves, for sure. But never getting hurt in the process.
- Or we can try to cheat death in pursuit of pleasure — throwing ourselves out of aeroplanes or into anonymous sex or into a never-ending parade of experiences (food or wine or whatever). Grasping at every passing scrap of enjoyment in an otherwise nasty, brutish and short life. And certainly not trading it in for more long-term things like character, integrity or investing in people.
Not that achievement, security or pleasure are necessarily bad things. Far from it. They’re good gifts from God. Rather, it’s the sheer desperation with which we tend to pursue them that’s the problem.
This desperation speaks of our headlong flight from our powerlessness before death, our failure to own our creatureliness and limitation — the fact that we’re dust and destined to return to dust — and our refusal to join the Psalmist in asking God to ‘teach us to number our days aright’ (Psalm 90.12). And its consequences are just toxic as too readily coming to grips with death.
That’s what I was trying to do for most of last week. I gave a talk about our powerlessness before death (launching from Mark 5.21-42) for the La Trobe Uni Christian Union on Wednesday. And I’m in the thick of drafting two seminars for this year’s mid year Summit, ‘In His Image’ (on Genesis 1-3) — one on creation, evolution and all that; the other on suffering.
And it’s quite current, I guess. Hard core fans and curious onlookers learned last week that coming to grips with death — or failing to come to grips with it — was what the TV series Lost has been about all these years. Which, while probably not as cutting-edge and postmodern as some might hope, makes for interesting territory to explore.
Because there are all sorts of illegitimate ways to come to grips with death. Ways that short-circuit things. Like refusing to permit yourself to grieve. Or simply writing death off as natural — one more link in the endless chain of causes and effects, something that may hurt if you’ve got too involved or lost touch with reality, but nothing unusual or tragic.
But I for one don’t want to let go of the tragic ‘wrongness’ of death (as much as it’s a pretty much a universal constant, affecting us all eventually). There must be a sense in which it’s right to ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ with Dylan Thomas — especially when the living God makes promises like this:
And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 25.7-8)
No. Coming to grips too readily with death doesn’t quite make sense for those who trust in a risen Saviour!