Friday, October 29, 2010

Looking Beyond the Fear of Death

One Halloween years ago, our next-door neighbor’s little girl went to a party held in the woods. The ghosts and goblins scared her, as well as the “dead bodies” hanging from the trees. She was so afraid afterward that she could not be in the dark by herself. For as long as we lived next door to her, her bedroom light stayed on all night.

The “fun” spooky Halloween fear touched something deep in this child.

“All of us are born with a set of instinctive fears—of falling, of the dark, of lobsters, of falling on lobsters in the dark, or speaking before a Rotary Club, and of the words ‘Some Assembly Required,’” writes Dave Barry.

Instinctive fear. When I was a child of seven or eight, as I fell asleep sometimes I would feel my own death. I was afraid, and would run to my mother’s room and climb into her bed and her arms for comfort.

It says in the Bible that the fear of death holds us in lifelong bondage. “Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives are held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

We have no idea how deeply our lives are dictated by fear. It manifests in so many ways. For instance, many people use control to order and structure their lives. They try to control the people and circumstances around them. This control can become quite a strong power that comes back to curse them, because they are trapped within its walls of seeming protection.

John O’Donohue tells the story of a man condemned to spend the night in a cell with a poisonous snake. If the man made the slightest movement, the snake would kill him. So all night he cowered, petrified, in a corner of the cell, afraid to even breathe. In the first morning light, he could see the snake in another corner, coiled and sleeping. Then, as it became lighter, he saw that it was nothing but an old rope.

So what is it exactly that we are afraid of? Perhaps it would help to take a closer look, because fear operates under a shroud of mystery. When we shine the light upon it, we may see it’s not what we’d imagined.

I never really understood Franklin D. Roosevelt’s statement about fear, you know, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I get what he meant, but it seems that fear itself opens the door to more fear.

If the fear of death is the root of all fear, the first thing we must realize is that we cannot control it. We don’t know when or how or where we’re going to die, or who will be there. You often hear about not wanting to die alone. Well, what if you’re out on the road, miles from home, and die in an accident?

I have never had the privilege of accompanying someone into death. My mother, father, grandparents … all died hundreds of miles away. Yet I have heard that the moment of death is an incredibly peaceful event for many, even for those who feared it.

Just last week, a relative was telling me about the death of her grandmother. The elderly woman had been in poor health in recent years. Although she was a lovely Christian woman, she was afraid of dying. When she took a turn for the worse, she had to go to the hospital. My relative described what she observed in her grandmother, at the moment of her death, as an audible joyous, peaceful relief. Death is a moment of ultimate self-surrender.

Maybe our fear of death is really a fear of self-surrender. Maybe our death is not somewhere in the future. It’s here now.

“Then I saw that the wall had never been there, that the ‘unheard-of’ is here and this, not something and somewhere else …,” writes Dag Hammarskjöld in “Markings.”

I wonder if the moment of death is like the man seeing the rope in the corner of the cell. “This? This is what I was afraid of all my life?”

Just what, exactly, are you afraid of?

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