Had a pleasant conversation with my son this morning. It's his birthday, you see, and we talk on the phone every Christmas and every birthday. Of course, in the meantime we exchange emails, when he has time.
When I say 'pleasant', I mean meaningful. Neither of us is much good at pleasantries or small talk.
One of his observations was that true peace comes only through overcoming the fear of death. Many people, whether they realize it or not, live in constant fear of death. We collect things, as if the greater collection we surround ourselves with, the more permanent we will become. We travel everywhere in cars for the fear that we might be assaulted on the street. We go to doctors and follow exercise and diet programs to stave off possible deadly flaws in our physical machinery. We seek permanence, we invest in the future.
I remember when my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer how he never could seem to digest the meaning of the word "terminal". As his troubles rapidly increased, his question remained, What do we do now? Can we have something removed? Should we see another doctor? Is there a better medicine? If the problem is with my stomach, can they remove my stomach?
What can one say? Politely, I mean. It's like, Dude, you're dying. What part of death do you not understand? It's not a question of fixing the problem. It's a matter of saying goodbye.
My dad had a very hard time dying, and, aside from the pain that was part of the cancer process, I think that the greatest difficulty of all came with the simple rejection of the unavoidable. He was, in short, not agreeable.
Billy Graham, who died just yesterday, once said "I have no fear of death. I look forward to it." For Graham, death was not the end. It was the beginning of being more fully with his Lord.
In any case, it is what it is. And it is unavoidable. It is the penultimate fact of life.
Another Christian writer, Marcus Borg, tells us in a late-in-life memoir (Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most) that he simply doesn't know what might happen when he dies. He will either know all or know nothing ever again at that time. What matters in the time that matters, which is now, is what one is making of life. In other words, another place, another reality called heaven, is not necessary to the acceptance of death. What is important is whether one is living now, whilst he is alive.
For myself, I believe there is a continuity in life that proceeds beyond this particular sphere that we presently know. It is clear even in quantum physics that energy does not simply disappear or 'un-become'. It transfers. It endures in new ways. And I do, personally, take Christ at his word--that another place has been prepared for us. (If it were not so, I would not have told you so). It is, moreover, a more perfect place, a better place, an unspeakably joyful place.
Now, what if people were running around the world unafraid of death? Would not the school shooter, for instance, have lost his purpose, given that the reaction of his victims would be to thank him? Given that they had no fear of losing what they must inevitably lose anyway. What use would we have for wars if no one feared being killed? "War is kind," as Stephen Crane wrote. What use would we have for killing anybody if we are all just about to die anyway?
Ah well, we spoke about some of these things, my son and I; and I have spoken a bit more about them here, since they were left on my mind when our phone connection was finished.