Tonight, when there is a knock at my door, it might be Death.
Probably, though, this version of Death will only be about four feet tall. He will carry a plastic scythe, and his dark robe will not completely hide his tennis shoes. I will give him a Snickers bar instead of my life, and he will say “thank you” before turning to run back to a parent waiting on the sidewalk.
If I look scared, I will only be pretending.
Halloween is full of cute and non-threatening reminders of death: ghosts, skeletons, tombstones. Zombies, werewolves, and other murderous monsters roam the night, but they can be bought off with bags of M&M’s.
And yet, in the background lurks something more authentically ominous. I can hear the trick-or-treaters coming a long way off, and not just because they talk and laugh and argue about who will ring the doorbell. Their feet crunch through the fallen leaves—leaves that just a few weeks ago were gorgeously red or yellow or orange, and that a few weeks earlier were green and supple.
The porch lights and flashlights and passing cars illuminate some actual skeletons: spindly tree branches that not so long ago were bursting with life. Now they have pulled their vitality deep inside to keep it safe through the coming winter.
Halloween really does begin the season of Death.
Not so long ago, in the days before houses had heating vents in every room and hospitals were stocked with antibiotics, the dark half of the year was a serious hurdle that many of the old and sickly would fail to jump. Even if you were young and healthy and careful, you had to face the fact that the growing season was over, and the harvest would either last until spring or it wouldn’t. Halloween was a time to look around and wonder who would still be at the table to celebrate Easter.
Or whether you would be there yourself.
Unitarian Universalists don’t often gather together to think about our deaths. Even UU funerals usually focus much more on the specific life that has ended than on our shared mortality. If a memorial service includes testimonials, I’m much more likely to tell the story of some inspiration I take from the deceased, or some amusing prank we pulled, than to say, “This death reminds me that I will die, too, and it scares me.”
Historically, we’ve been an upbeat, can-do religion that doesn’t make a lot of space for brooding about death. Most of the time, I think that’s a healthy reaction against religions that brood too much and too unproductively. Better we should worry about disasters that might actually happen than scare ourselves with visions of Hell. Better we put our effort towards improving life here on Earth, for others as well as ourselves, than try to pile up riches in some dubious afterlife.
And yet, because each of us is alive and each of us will die, Unitarian Universalists have as much to brood about as anybody else. If we don’t do it together, then sooner or later most of us will end up doing it alone. And if I don’t make a time for it, the time may make itself—perhaps when some bad dream or strange twinge wakes me up in the middle of the night.
So let me propose this as a winter topic for UU covenant groups and other safe, intimate discussions: This is what scares me about death and this is how I’m dealing with those fears.
I remember exactly when I first became afraid of death in a more-than-childish way. I was 16, and I had a Saturday night job in a pre-computerized small-town newsroom. Editors would give me marked-up stories that reporters had typed by hand on cheap paper, and I would deliver those sheets to the composing room where the next morning’s newspaper was being set into metal type. That became my favorite way to read the Sunday paper: half a day early, a few paragraphs at a time, while I walked quickly and tried not to run into walls or people.
I remember one article in particular. It was just three paragraphs typed on a single sheet: During a windstorm that day, a local man had been standing in his yard when a tree branch blew down and killed him.
I had never thought about that kind of death. I had seen lots of characters get killed on TV shows, but they always died in some way that made sense—heroically or tragically or because they made a mistake. And my grandmother had died, but that also had made a certain kind of sense. Her cancer had been a challenge that had led to various treatments in response. Gradually it became apparent that the treatments would fail. My grandmother’s story did not come out the way I wanted, but at least it had a beginning, a middle, and an end.
You knew where you were in a story like that.
But this guy, I imagined, had just been in his yard, on a day like many other windy days. I pictured him living in the middle of dozens of stories—about his job or his family or something he was trying to accomplish—stories that had motivated and made sense out of his life the way my stories motivated and made sense out of mine. But I was certain that none of his stories made sense out of the windblown branch that killed him. The stories he thought he was living had not concluded, they had all just cut off in the middle, like TV shows in a power failure.
I brooded about that for days afterward. I even thought (at this distance, I can’t say how seriously) about suicide. I think I was trying to regain control of the story of my death. A death of my own choosing could complete a story of my own devising. How much better that seemed than to risk having all my stories—about school or sports or my future career or my hopes for romance—suddenly cut off.
At various times in my life I have feared death for other reasons. Like most people, I have an animal urge for self-preservation that pops up whenever a threat is immediately present. But it does not cause me to brood about death in general any more than animals do.
I was raised in another faith that had a powerful vision of Hell. Without the constant reinforcement of that faith community, though, that fear has withered to nothing. Not even a horror movie can reawaken it.
Some of my friends fear the consequences their deaths would have on their young children, or on other dependents who would be helpless without them. But (although I imagine I would be grieved over and missed) I am not in that situation. And as far as the larger world goes, I agree with Charles de Gaulle: “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” Humanity will manage to muddle on without me.
But the fear of having my stories suddenly cut off, of a death that makes no sense in the story of my life, sticks with me. The possibility of such a death is like a loose end in a tapestry: Think about it too much, tug on it too hard, and the story of your life can start to unravel.
Stories about the future do an important job in the human psyche. They give meaning to the tedious parts of life, and motivate difficult actions whose consequences take time to play out. But when fear of death unravels your life story, that process starts to work against you. Moments that could be savored here and now instead taste like dust and ashes. Every pleasure or success is just another reminder of how much there is to lose. William James captured such an unraveling with this image:
[Humankind] is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature’s portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation.
So what am I doing to deal with that?
I try to avoid two obvious temptations: First, not to think about death at all, and second, to wish the problem away by imagining a perfect afterlife, where I and all my loved ones will live happily ever after. Either of these solutions might work for a while, but I suspect that for me they would collapse at the worst possible time. Someday a doctor might give me a few months to live, and then I might discover that I can’t avoid thinking about it, and that I don’t really believe in Heaven after all. Then what?
Instead, I combine short-term, medium-term, and long-term strategies.
In the short term, I practice mindfulness. I try to appreciate each moment as it comes, without forcing it to mean something in a larger story. Peace, William James. I really do enjoy the bonfires, even if the lake is melting.
In the medium term, I try not to pile up expectations that someday could become regrets. If life won’t feel complete unless I’ve done X, Y, and Z, I want to do them as soon as is practical. And if Z will never be practical, better I should start grieving for it now than when the terminal diagnosis comes.
For the long term, I try to identify with groups and causes larger than myself. My personal stories will end when I die, but a lot of other stories won’t. If I truly value my role in those stories, my actions can be meaningful right up to the moment of death. My inspiration here comes from the speech the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave in Memphis the night before he died. In that speech he anticipated his death and made peace with it. He had been to the mountaintop, he said, and had seen the Promised Land.
I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!
We, not I. The collective story goes on and is meaningful, even as the personal story ends.
OK, your turn.
But wait, there’s somebody at the door. Hand me a Snickers bar.