Toward the end of Seminary, I experienced a deep anxiety. One reason for entering seminary in the first place had been for discernment. What vocation to pursue. Academia? Ministry? Missions? Music? Here it was three years later and I was no closer to the goal, and still directionless.
Home sick from my job working for the Special Education department in the local school system, I borrowed a set of DVDs from a friend and looked forward to the day of rest and binge watching. It was Season 2 of Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under. In the show, each episode begins with a death. Some tragic, some comical, some accidental, some natural. Its power, though, lay in its treatment of the complexity and nuance of our psychological responses to the deaths we experience.
The show squarely flies in the face of Ernest Becker’s criticism that our culture suffers from a Denial of Death. Strange as it may seem to have an existentially pivotal moment in life from a TV show, it drove a point home: I had shielded myself from death and this was a large part of what was holding me back.
Growing up overseas, I hadn’t been present for the deaths or funerals of any family members. These were stories. Abstractions. The message in churches was that Christ defeated death. Nothing to worry about there, then. As an English major, we tossed around the phrase death is the mother of beauty. In other words, we value experiences, because we know they’re transient. But this again was death on the page, a simple abstraction. But the deaths come. And neither triumphalism nor intellectualism adequately prepares us to face them with maturity.
This fictional treatment of death gave me a forum to remember, to value, to acknowledge, to let go. After several episodes, I cried, repeatedly, frequently. For a grandfather. A grandmother. A friend. Old relationships. The specter of losing a father recently diagnosed with cancer. Lost friendships. Former lives. The opportunity costs of my life decisions. I had a sudden access to the nuance and complexity of my own responses to the deaths in my life.
We have so much mobility and so much distraction, it’s so easy to be glib about people and parts of ourselves we leave behind. Nor should we get mired in the trap of sentimentalism or victimhood. But I hadn’t allowed myself to see nor honor many deaths that had seemingly occurred off in the background somewhere. And the unconscious avoidance contributed to fear, caution, passivity, a lack of agency.
There are times we need the downward journey to come back up again whole.
A year later, three friends of mine were shot, two of them fatally. I made a point of attending the distant funeral, dwelling in that space, mourning with our community, and acknowledging the loss.
In a profound way, this is interwoven with the contemplative practice of seeing, acknowledging, and letting go.
Jesuit teacher and author Anthony De Mello writes about a spiritual practice of visualizing our death in as much detail as possible, seeing our body no longer alive, and seeing it decay. Responding to the charge that this is a morbid thought, he points out that there is nothing more natural in the world. It’s simply a part of this gift of life we have.
Surprisingly, this practice is a commonplace in one of the happiest countries on earth, Bhutan. In fact, they are expected to think about death five times a day, almost like a prayer ritual. And when someone dies, there are elaborate mourning rituals to honor the passing.
Henri Nouwen writes of drinking the cup of life deeply, containing both its joys and its sorrows. In the contemplative tradition this is called experiencing life fully by seeing it as it is. Part of ultimate reality, is transience, the death of things we cling to, our own deaths. Building up inner resistance to that natural process can keep us mired in fearful lives. Inner acceptance on the other hand, opens us up to possibility, freedom, and according to the Bhutanese, happiness.