(Death, dying, grief 8)

“Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning” (Viktor Frankl).

Perhaps given the way we are, crisis and tragedy serve an important function in our lives. They bring us back to the recognition of our limits, our mortality, of our need for something beyond ourselves. They remind us of who we really are. Joseph Campbell saw it this way:

“One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.”

Some people, realizing this, reflect with fondness on the times when trouble made life and God more real to them. Michael J. Fox said his illness was a blessing to him. When I was a young man visiting London, a man said to me, “You know, sometimes I miss those nights we spent in the Underground during the war, with the firebombs falling on the city. Things mattered then in a way they haven’t seemed to matter since. You knew God was around. You knew what life was about.”

There is a growing cultural support for thinking of traumatic experiences as passages of rebirth that might lead to a deeper healing. The tremendous success of the public television series in which Bill Moyers interviewed mythologist Joseph
Campbell was based on our hunger for new meaning, particularly for a way to understand crisis, tragedy and suffering. Campbell was adept in his ability to tell archetypal First Stories from different cultures in which the heroes and heroines faced seemingly endless and insurmountable terrors and trials on their way to attaining gifts of wisdom.

In some European cultures there is an old custom of burying the umbilical cord with the seed of a fruit. If all goes well, the little seed swells with water in the dark womb of the earth, splits and dies. The dying seed gives birth to a growing shoot which, in five or six seasons, will mature into a tree that bears fruit in its turn. The tree and its fruit are the exclusive property of the child on whose umbilicus the growing seed has fed. In watching the tree die back in winter and reawaken in spring, the child is brought close to the mystery of the seasons and their metaphor for the births, deaths and transformations that are equally a part of human life. What child has not looked on with wonder as a seed sprouts, a plant or flower forms, and life is reborn anew?

While the metaphor is poetic and easy to appreciate, it is hard to apply to our own lives, which are a series of little deaths, a letting go of the old to make room for something new to be born. Each of these letting-goes entrails a transition – a passage – from the way things were to the way things will be. While we know what was and can often dream of what the future might hold, the period of passage is a kind of no-man’s land, a limbo, a space that cannot always be defined.

Some of these passages are short, like the transition phase of labor. Others are long, like adolescence. Birth, puberty, childhood’s end, marriage, old age, death – these are commonplace, expected, sometimes joyful and sometimes painful transitions. Illness, madness, loss, war, addiction – these are also commonplace but dreaded transitions that issue compelling invitations to become something new, something other than the self we were. The birth and characteristics of the new self are determined in large part by the stories we tell ourselves about why the time of darkness has come.

When I read the 23 Psalm, a song by the psalmist, David, about God preparing a table in the presence of his enemies I have always wondered if it was an actual table. Was David dining sumptuously at the time when his enemies had nothing comparable to eat? Or was it only a metaphor, a figure of speech that David used, because he felt so very, very good about life?

I confess I’m inclined to think the latter, because even a real table filled with delicious and succulent foods is no match for David’s experiences with God. The greatest blessing of life, by far, is a spirit or an attitude, not a tangible gift. It is the capacity to feel good about things, to know that life is rich and wonderful, to enjoy the presence of the Creator regardless of how things are going in the real world.

It is natural not think very much about death when things are going smoothly and easily for us. But when we think about death, when we realize that our days are numbered, that the curtains are about to close, that is another matter, isn’t it?

A friend told me his experience about going to a dermatologist to have some little blemishes removed from his face. When he was there, he said he had a little mole on his chest taken off. A few days later, the dermatologist said to him on the telephone, “The report came back on that mole we removed. It was a malignant melanoma. I want you to come back and have some more surgery.” Click. That was all.

I knew about melanoma. One of the most dreaded forms of cancer, it eats through bone and tissue and all. He said the doctor didn’t tell him that his was only a superficial melanoma and he didn’t expect to have any trouble removing it all. He only said it was a melanoma and he would need more surgery.

He went to bed that night. He went to sleep at first. Then he woke up in the stillness of the house and thought about dying. He was going to leave it all – his wife, his children, his home, his work, everything. Leave it. Just like that. Maybe within a few months’ time, if he was lucky.

It had a clarifying effect on his mind. There was only one answer for my friend: God. Whatever happened, whether he lived or died, it was God that mattered to him. He would die one day anyway, he said. It didn’t really matter whether it was now or fifty years from now. He would still leave it all.

He told me he thought about how silly he had been, getting so upset over the possibility of dying. He said think of how I have always loved adventure, loved to travel. Death is the greatest adventure there is. It’s like going off to another country where no one you know has ever gone and come back to tell about it.” He added, “I thought how exciting that will be. Just trust God and enjoy it.”

However, he is not sorry it didn’t work out for him to die and have that adventure now! I felt good knowing he had faced the incident with this spirit and attitude. He knew as he told me the story that I would understand it. We all live with death as we grow older. We feel it when it is harder to get out of an easy chair. We see it when we look in the mirror first thing in the morning. Death is drawing nearer and nearer.