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 Hammarskj√∂ld 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?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Reading: It's More Than It Seems

In my 50-plus years on this earth, I’ve lived in small towns, big cities and foreign countries.

I’ve raced an iceboat down a frozen river, served my country as a spy during the Cold War and run a coffee plantation in Africa. I have also renovated an old stone inn on an island in the English Channel, lived as a nun in a Portuguese monastery and witnessed the suffering of African-American slaves. Once, I drifted in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a teen-aged boy whose only companion is a Bengal tiger who may eat him at any moment.

People read, it is said, for two main reasons: for information or entertainment. But there are other, more compelling reasons for keeping one’s nose buried in a book.
It has to do with the yearning of one’s heart. For knowledge, yes, that’s part of it. But what is the knowledge for?

“When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes,” wrote the 15th century Christian humanist, Erasmus.

My bookcases overflow with books. In some places, they’re two deep. I have books stored in closets, piled in stacks on the floor and stashed in more than a few cardboard boxes. What am I looking for?

In his article, “The Risk Of Reading,” Mark Edmundson contends that the socialization process doesn’t always work. For some people, the values of their culture don’t fit them.

“And it is these people who often become obsessed readers,” writes Edmundson in the Aug. 1, 2004, New York Times Magazine. “They don’t read for information, and they don’t read for beautiful escape. No, they read to remake themselves. They read to be socialized again, not into the ways of their city or village this time but into another world with different values. Such people want to revise, or even to displace, the influence their parents have had on them. They want to adopt values they perceive to be higher or perhaps just better suited to their natures.”

Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver spent most of her childhood out in the woods – sometimes missing school – or in her room, reading poetry and prose.

“I, too, live in this ordinary world,” writes Oliver in “Blue Pastures.” “I was born into it. Indeed, most of my education was made to make me feel comfortable within it. Why that enterprise failed is another story. Such failures happen, and then, like all things, are turned to the world’s benefit, for the world has a need of dreamers as well as shoemakers.”

I am not at home in this culture of highways, subdivisions, shopping plazas, celebrities, divorce, abortion, abuse, consumerism, Hollywood, Nashville; in this culture where egomaniac celebrities are exalted as role models; in a culture where people attain relevance only by appearing on TV and where money is the bottom line for every civic and private decision. Neither was I at home in my parents’ house.

C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.”

As an introvert, I connect with people through books in a much deeper way than is generally possible in daily life. Some of my friends are Madeleine L’Engle, Isak Dinesen, William Gibson, Annie Dillard, Elizabeth Goudge, Arundhati Roy, Margaret Atwood, Mary Oliver.

I’ve visited L’Engle’s home in Connecticut, hunted with Dinesen in central Africa, cyber-traveled with Gibson, sat with Dillard on the bank of Tinker Creek, traipsed through a magical woods with Goudge, felt the heartbreak of sexual double standards with Roy, seen into the future with Atwood and crawled through marshes with Oliver.
By seeing through their eyes, I’ve learned something from each of these authors: something about myself, something about other people, something about the world, something about the nature of God.

When I want to see life through God’s eyes, I read the Bible. In those pages, I am with God in the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve in their pure joy and with them in their fall. I go with God to Palestine, walk with the Israelites across the Red Sea and trudge with them in the wilderness.

With the Jews in their suffering, I look for the Messiah, the coming of God, who will redeem all things. With the disciples, I find him.
In the pages of the Bible – inspired by the Creator – I find the most accurate mirror of my self.

“You it was who fashioned my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. … You know me through and through … my life was fashioned before it had come into being,” writes David in the Psalms.

In those pages, I find all that I long for, all that I search for in my travels through all the thousands of pages in all those other books.
In those pages, I am home.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Are We Real Anymore?

We have become disembodied spirits.

When we moved to Mount Sidney 17 years ago, our bank had a branch in Weyers Cave, about four miles from my house. The teller I dealt with, a woman I visited once a week, took my deposits, asked how I was, chitchatted a bit about the weather or how busy she was that day.

Back then, my checks included the name and physical address of my bank, “81 Franklin St., Weyers Cave.” Now my checks say “.com.”

Where is that? Similarly, where are you? Who are you?

“The worldwide network presents a state of complete equality, an equality of nobodies,” writes Read Schuchardt, a media ecologist, paraphrasing another media ecologist, Eric McLuhan. “There is no owner, nobody owns the net, nobody is in charge, there’s no head office, and every user can say with all fidelity, ‘I am everyman’ or, ‘I am legion.’ ”

Not long ago, a family member was going through a difficult time. When I ran into a family friend and shared the news with him, he said, “I’m surprised. You’d never know it by their Facebook page.”

Facebook, you see, is not real life. For that matter, none of our life is real on the Internet.

McLuhan (son of, yes, Marshall) uses Thomas Aquinas’ definition of identity: the coming together of matter and spirit. “Without the body, then, identity is not possible,” says McLuhan.

On the Internet — or television or radio, for that matter — humans are discarnate. Images with no body. “Individuality is simply not possible because there is nothing on which to base it, to give it substance,” McLuhan says. The discarnate is a mass audience.

Facebook, blogs, TV shows, are all about image. Images being projected at faster-than-lightning, instantaneous speed.

“At electric speed there is no moving to or fro, the user just manifests here or there, having left the body behind,” writes Schuchardt. “ ‘There’ might be the other side of the room or the other side of town or the other side of the world — it makes no difference, it’s all the same. You function in more than one place at once. On the air, you can have your being in thousands or millions of places simultaneously.”

So we are users without bodies. According to Aquinas’s definition, then, are we dead?

I “have” a friend on Facebook who, in real flesh-and-blood life, died six months ago. Yet he still has a Facebook page. There’s his photo, an image of him. People still post messages to him on his wall. Anyone stumbling on his page would think he’s still alive. It’s like Facebook has given him an electric immortality.

It reminds me of the “construct” in the 1988 book “Neuromancer,” written by William Gibson. The construct is a ROM module containing the saved consciousness of a person, McCoy Pauley. In the story, the main character, Case, needs Pauley’s computer-hacking expertise. So he gets this ROM module and has an eerie “face-to-face” conversation with Pauley, who is able to respond to Case’s questions.

A far cry from a headstone.

None of these Internet interactions makes sense to me unless these disembodied communications manifest in a physical meeting. For instance. A while back on Facebook, the husband and I reconnected with friends we had not seen or heard from in more than 25 years. Then when we went to New York in August, we visited Dennis and Edna. We hugged, talked, listened, ate a meal together.

Incarnation.

This is what draws me back, over and over, to the Christian faith. God came to Earth in a physical body as Jesus Christ. He walked everywhere he went, talked with people, touched them, cried with them, touched them, laughed with them, touched them.

“What’s the basis of Christianity? It’s really a meal, it’s communion right?” says Sufjan Stevens in an interview this week with The Quietus. “It’s the Eucharist. That’s it, it’s the sharing a meal with your neighbours and what is that meal? It’s the body and blood of Christ. Basically God offering himself up to you as nutrition. Haha, that’s pretty weird. It’s pretty weird if you think about that, that’s the basis of your faith. You know, God is supplying a kind of refreshment and food for a meal.”

Incarnation. This meal, at which we share wine and bread with others. This meal, at which everybody is somebody.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

How Do We Measure Our Days?

Editor's note: This column was originally published in 2004.

Around and around and around we go. In two months, I will have completed 50 trips around the sun.

That’s how we measure our years, by Earth’s elliptical revolutions around the sun. If only our days and weeks proceeded at such a natural pace.

Living by the clock is unnatural.

Farmers live by the seasons, by phases of the moon, by sunrise and sunset, by humidity and precipitation. When the sun shines in late spring, it’s time to make hay. When it shines in the fall, it’s time to cut corn.

Fishermen live by the tides, wind and sun. Growing up on the Great South Bay in New York, my grandmother and I planned our clamming expeditions for warm mornings when the tide was out. Crabbing we did at night during the full moon at low tide.

How long do farmers take to make hay? As long as it takes to finish baling the field.

How long did we spend clamming? As long as it took to fill a bushel basket.

When I was a kid, summer lasted forever. I awoke when the sun shone in my bedroom window, ate breakfast when I was hungry, played with my friends when I was ready for the world, buried my nose in a book when I wasn’t. No clock told me when to do what, although my mother sometimes did.

The lives of farmers, clammers and kids are in tune with the rest of creation, not in opposition to it. Albert Einstein said, “every frame of reference, every moving body, has its own time.”

Because we live by “get to work at 8, eat lunch at noon, return home at 5, eat dinner by 6 so we can get to whatever class or meeting by 7,” we are always conscious of the clock. Time is the enemy we must beat.

No matter how we try to control time, it eludes us. When we attempt to save time, make time or use time; whether we lose time, pass the time or waste time; are in time, on time, out of time, behind time or ahead of time; have no time or plenty of time ... we still end up with the same amount of time.

That’s what fascinates me about the age we live in. Since the end of the 19th century, man has been inventing everything imaginable to save time: telegraphs, automobiles, airplanes, telephones, assembly lines and computers. Each new computer is milliseconds faster than the one before it.

Speed is our god. But no matter how fast we drive or work or play or compute, we still don’t have surplus time.

“People consume the benefit of speed by spending it on distance,” writes philosopher John Whitelegg.

Time just is. It does not move. We are the ones who are moving, aging, working, racing, resting.

Why not just go with the flow?

In Judaism, holy days are not observed by the clock, but by the seasons of the moon, by sunrise and sunset, by planting and harvest times.

And the Sabbath, which God provided to remind people they are eternal beings outside of time, signals its beginning and end by the setting of the sun. The manner in which Christians observe a Sabbath totally misses God’s point.

“And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy,” says Genesis 2:3. Nothing else in all creation does God endow with the quality of holiness. Holy means “other.”

If you think about it, any given moment of our lives is unique, never to be repeated. It’s not like money, where, if we waste a dollar, we know we’ll get another one. Each moment is precious.

Abraham Heschel, the Jewish theologian/philosopher, calls the Sabbath a great cathedral, the holy of holies, the inner sanctuary. “Time is the heart of existence,” he says.

We approach living in rhythm with creation when we’re on vacation. Real vacation, not the kind where you schedule hang gliding on Monday, golf on Tuesday, canoeing on Wednesday, horseback riding on Thursday and shopping on Friday.

Real vacation is where you wake up when you’re done sleeping. You stare at the ocean and listen to the waves wash in and out, or stare at the mountains and listen to the creek trickle over the rocks.

When you get hungry, you buy seafood from the guy on the dock or put on a shirt for a restaurant buffet. You watch the sun set from the beach or the porch. You go to bed when you can’t stay awake any longer.

When you go on vacation, vacate the clock. Leave the planner home. Get out of time. You just might remember that you are a creature of heaven and earth, on a big ride around the sun.