“I’m going to die. I’m going to die and I’ve no idea when or how.”
The thought hit me like a bolt of lightening as it coursed through my body. I tried to calm myself taking deep soothing breaths as I stared blankly into the moonlit darkness of the camper I was sleeping in, or at least trying to sleep in.
Unlike some worries and fears this one wasn’t irrational or rooted in some crazy delusion this was true and unavoidable and it wasn’t just me, it would happen to the children, Sid, everyone.
Existential fears I think they’re called. The fears we wrestle with in the darkness that are way too big for our finite minds to comprehend.
It’s not the first time I’d played out this disturbing reality, although every time the thought hits me it does seem strangely like it’s news to my tiny mind. These fears always seem to taunt me most when life is relatively OK. Take this moment for example, camping in the walled garden of an old Manor, surrounded by family and friends. Lazy days spent in the pool, strolling through the meadow and exploring the woods. Hours swinging on tree swings or finding sticks to sharpen ready to toast marshmallows on the bonfire. Conversations over cups of tea, sharing life with people who were honest enough to admit they hadn’t got it all sorted and happy to laugh or cry about that reality. I honestly didn’t want to be anywhere else. I guess that’s the sign of a good holiday. The days had been hot which meant clear cooler nights which is why I lay there awake, slightly too cold to sleep, wrestling with the terror of my own mortality.
The truth is that I don’t really know what to do with those thoughts. My childhood faith had offered a strategy for being saved, but saved from what? Clearly not death, or at least not the physical death that would separate me from those I loved. So what do I do with those very real and inescapable fears?
I can’t believe I’m the only one to have ever realised the terrifying truth of my own mortal existence. We all know we’re going to die and we’re all good at avoiding thinking about it, until we really have to, which must be a good thing because I’m not sure life on planet earth would be much fun if we all lived with death at the forefront of our minds all of the time.
There are of course a number of responses to the reality of death. We can choose to distract ourselves from ever thinking about it with careful avoidance techniques, indulging in food, drink, sex, drugs or any other harmless or harmful addictions, anything to numb the pain of the reality we all face. We can choose denial, pushing death aside and focusing on our increasingly fast paced lives, filling every second with activity and leaving us no alone time to think.
Or we can choose to contend a little more bravely with the thoughts of death and separation? We can spend time addressing the issues within ourselves, reconnecting with our own soul and rediscovering an inner peace that comes from finding that being left alone with our own thoughts is actually quite a healthy place to be.
We might also find that there are some realities we do just have to accept we can’t answer, like the when and how of death, and at the same time admit that the terror which surrounds the actual truth of death is very real.
For me it was about admitting that the faith that told me I didn’t need to fear death didn’t quite add up in the way all of those around me seemed so convinced it did. I do have moments where death terrifies me, where the apparent fact that “death is defeated” seems to mean nothing when faced with my own death or the death of those I love. Yet I can’t write off my faith because there is something about wrestling with these thoughts that enables me to hold them. There’s is something about the surrender found in the Jesus story that inspires me, something about his submission to the rhythm of life, death and resurrection that does leave me knowing deep within that this whole concept is held by a force, an energy, a power, an ultimate reality, called love or God, or whatever name makes most sense, and that this source of being holds all of time and all of our stories. Somewhere in that I find a peace.
I find peace in believing that our stories matter but aren’t what holds it all together, that they are important but they’re not the whole story. Maybe if I’m able to keep in check the truth that my story is a humble part of the bigger story then my coming and going from this world is very gently held within that. Whilst death is sad and painful and a myriad of other emotions for those that are left to wait their turn, death becomes part of the story rather than the end.
So I’m left with the challenge of surrender, the challenge to relinquish control, to lay down my fears and instead choose to live the best life possible, to contribute to the story in a way that is good because I’m going to die and when I do I want to know I’ve lived life fully alive.