In normal times we move about actually without ever believing in our own death, as if we fully believed in our own corporeal immortality. We are intent on mastering death…. A man will say, of course, that he knows he will die some day, but he does not really care. He is having a good time with living, and he does not think about death and does not care to bother about it—but this is a purely intellectual, verbal admission. The affect of fear is repressed.
– Gregory Zilboorg, “Fear of Death”
I think most people understand there’s a difference between intellectual assent and genuinely believing something. It’s the difference between mentally affirming that something is true, and experiencing it existentially so that it is felt and understood from the heart – as Mark Twain might say, the difference between a lightning bug and actually lightning. We all know, as a factual matter, as head knowledge, that we are mortal. Everyone dies. One day we will too, and yet, as Zilboorg says, we suppress that knowledge, we fill our lives and our thoughts with other things to escape contemplating the fate that awaits us – that one day we will cease to exist in this world.
As a 25-year-old, in the peak of vitality and strength, this is especially true for me and my age demographic. I know I’ll die, but I can type that sentence without a shudder. Death is likely still decades off, after all, why should I be so preoccupied with it? Statistically I still have a good 50 years or so, and sure, maybe I’ll suffer a premature death, but the odds are slim, and I don’t want to be controlled by the minuscule odds and irrational fears of plane crashes and shark attacks.
But the years are starting to go by faster, and still I suppress the thought of death. Well, perhaps not so much the thought as the belief in my own mortality. I can be a pretty cynical person. The news reports make me aware of death – again, as a matter of head knowledge. As a Christian, almost every Sunday when I step into church I’m driven to consider the ancient wisdom of the Psalmist: “Teach me to number my days, that I may gain a heart of wisdom.” But still, odds are I am relatively distant from the Reaper, and so I remain emotionally estranged from that most obvious, grim, and terrify fact.
Sometimes, however, reality breaks through, terrifying and exhilarating, and we confront our mortality head on. In these experiences, the tenuous nature of existence comes into sharp focus: I could die tomorrow, tonight, so soon; my God, it’ll happen so soon.
As best I can remember, I have had three of these moments over the past three years. Each only lasted a few minutes, perhaps just seconds. They were outside of my control, impossible to generate, unpredictable, but awfully real.
The first occurred in my apartment in Santa Clarita, CA about three years ago. I was home alone at night reading the Bible. I don’t remember which passage exactly, but it was somewhere in Job or Ecclesiastes, when suddenly I felt the sharp, stabbing sense of my own morality. The temporal concerns of my first job, unrequited romance, food, chores, what-have-you – those all vanished. I felt the nearness of judgment day and the immanent prospect of heaven. The spiritual waverings that kept me in a state of lukewarmness steadied and became grave. The stakes beamed bright and clear and eternally high. I shuddered, resolved to continue seeking God, sat in place, fearful.
The second happened in Washington, DC, in 2013. I was going for a walk at dusk on a warm summer day around the parking lot at RFK stadium. I had earbuds in and was listening to a song called “The Setting Sun” by Switchfoot. The vibrant hope of the music and the poetry triggered an eternal rush: “It won’t be long, I belong somewhere past this setting sun. Finally free, finally strong, somewhere back where I belong.”
It’s a great song; I’ve listened to it dozens of times, maybe even hundreds. Many of them were during sunset, in more idyllic settings, but only once has it struck me quite this deeply. Something lifted the fog of digital distractions and musical escape and city noise. I’ve never had an actual vision, but the sky looked ripe for one, like a conduit of final redemption and restoration. The Savior and Judge is coming back in the skies. Good Lord they could rip open any moment. And soon I’ll be past them, past this world with its burning-out sun and universe of entropy and chaos. I’m so close, I thought, so close. If my hope is true, paradise is but a sky away. The sun of my years will set, and I’ll awaken to a dawn that makes the first 25 years of sunrises look like a tiny lantern in the dark. I’ll run with no pain in my side, glorified, invigorated, and whole.
The third was probably the least intense of the three, and the most perplexing given the context. It took place just a few months ago – again in DC. I was at a friend’s house watching the film District Nine for the first time. It is full of action and swearing, nothing too atypical for Hollywood fare, but it has a realism that few alien films achieve. The story is dark and hectic, but designed to evoke pity and empathy. The main character, Wikus Van De Merwe, contracts alien genetics somehow and begins to turn into an alien. He is taken into a secretive lab, forced to fire guns and blast aliens to jelly, and soon doomed to be harvested so that human researchers can unlock the genetic secrets of the alien race they are oppressing (I promise I’m going somewhere with this, stick with me). The South African setting makes the apartheid undertones of the film clear. Wikus is a rather unassuming chap, just trying to do a little humanitarian field work (except not, technically, humans; “alienatarian”?), and suddenly he finds himself about to be harvested – doomed to a lab death behind closed doors. I don’t know why but that sense of “that could be me” enveloped me – a tiny taste of the fear and shock experienced by those who lose loved ones in freak car crashes, a microcosm of the soldier whose buddy is shot, inches away, while he lives unscathed. It’s that sense that we really do live on a precipice of comfort and normalcy, and the next moment could snatch it all away and drop you in some secret, merciless underground lab. That poor guy with the alien hand, friendly little Wikus, he’s going to die right after celebrating his birthday. That’s horrifying, I thought. Because I will too.
I had a fourth episode just a few months ago that didn’t quite reach the intensity of the prior three, but I want to point it out because while all of aforementioned experiences drove me to hope, this one ended on a much darker note. That’s what’s scary about these moments; they push the soul to the extremes – either a radical, desperate leap of faith, or the deepest despair on the brink of the abyss. I was reading a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on the metro on the way home from work. It’s a long, meandering philosophical reflection woven into a motorcycle road trip through the Pacific Northwest. The narrator is a father traveling with his young son. As he tries to piece together his past as a philosopher, looking back at all the havoc and angst it wracked in him as he sparred mentally with human history’s greatest thinkers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all the way down to today’s academics, he looks into the future and sees the same relentless, endless drive for truth in his son:
“(He’s) being driven by forces he doesn’t understand. The questions… the same questions… He’s got to know everything. And if he doesn’t get the answer he just drives and drives until he gets one and that leads to another question and he drives and drives for the answer to that… endlessly pursing questions, never seeing, never understanding that the questions will never end. Something is missing and he knows it and will kill himself trying to find it.”
At that moment on the yellow line train to Fort Totten, I saw my life splay out before me as an endless string of questions, with answers I have no choice to embrace but cannot help but doubt. I saw myself driving on, floundering, in an endless sea of knowledge, data, ideas, and theories for the rest of my earthly days. It was nauseating.
The late anthropologist and philosopher Ernest Becker uses that opening quote from Zilboorg in the opening for a chapter in his book, The Denial of Death. In that book Becker says: “I believe that those who speculate that a full apprehension of man’s condition would drive him insane are right, quite literally right.”
I’m inclined to agree.
It’s a funny exercise, writing about these moments. I can’t re-experience them, and even if I could I couldn’t find the words to do them justice. But they’re worth remembering and treasuring. They remind me of the truth of my condition. They prove that the ruminations of philosophers like Becker, bands like Switchfoot, filmmakers like Neill Blomkamp, and Moses aren’t some dry intellectual exercise. Rather, they cut to the core of who I am and the fate I am destined for, which is death: to perish, to cease to exist in the face I look at in the mirror every morning. These moments are markers, mementos mori left by the Teacher to teach me to number my days. They remind me that I’m too weak to handle the ultimate reality of death; that I must suppress it and go about my business of eating, sleeping, talking, walking, and all the passing things that make up my life, or else go insane. By causing my awareness of my suppression, however, they affirm and ultimately validate my hope that in the end I will escape the black of the void. And not only the black of the void, but the much more terrifying and disturbing prospect of the horrors of damnation.
From whence comes that hope? It comes from a Man who came from beyond the setting sun, a place of true freedom and eternal strength, somewhere back where I belong.