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Rumors of Another World
According to Greek mythology, people once knew in advance their exact day of death. Everyone on earth lived with a deep sense of melancholy, for mortality hung like a sword suspended above them. All that changed when Prometheus introduced the gift of fire. Now humans could reach beyond themselves to control their destinies; they could strive to be like the gods. Caught up in excitement over these new possibilities, people soon lost the knowledge of their death day.
Have we moderns lost even more? Have we lost, in fact, the sense that we will die at all?
Although some authors argue as much (such as social theorist Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death), I have found that behind the noise of daily life, rumors of another world can still be heard. The whispers of death persist, and I have heard them, I believe, in three unlikely places: a health club, a political action group, and a hospital therapy group. I have even detected the overtones—but only overtones—of theology in these unexpected places.
I joined the Chicago Health Club after a foot injury forced me to find alternatives to running. It took a while to adjust to the artificiality of the place. Patrons lined up to use high-tech rowing machines, complete with video screens and animation pace boats, though Lake Michigan, a real lake requiring real oars, lay empty just four blocks away. In another room, people working out at Stairmaster machines duplicated the act of climbing stairsthis in a dense patch of high-rise buildings. And I marveled at the technology that adds computer-programmed excitement to the everyday feat of bicycling.
I marveled, too, at the human bodies using all these machines: the gorgeous women wearing black and hot pink leotards, and the huge hunks of masculinity who clustered around the weight machines. Mirrored glass, appropriately, sheathed the walls, and a quick glance revealed dozens of eyes checking out the results of all the sweating and grunting, on themselves and on their neighbors.
The health club is a modern temple, complete with initiation rites and elaborate rituals, its objects of worship on constant and glorious display. I detected a trace of theology there, for such devotion to the human form gives evidence of the genius of a Creator who designed with aesthetic flair. The human person is worth preserving. And yet, in the end, the health club stands as a pagan temple. Its members strive to preserve only one part of the person: the body, the least enduring part of all.
Ernest Becker wrote his book and died before the exercise craze gripped America, but I imagine he would see in health clubs a blatant symptom of death-denial. Health clubs, along with cosmetic surgery, baldness retardants, skin creams, and an endless proliferation of magazines on sports, swimsuits, and dieting help direct our attention away from death toward life. Life in this body. And if we all strive together to preserve our bodies, then perhaps science will one day achieve the unthinkable: perhaps it will conquer mortality and permit us to live forever, like Gulliver’s toothless, hairless, memoryless race of Struldbruggs.
Once, as I was pedaling nowhere on a computerized bicycle, I thought of Kierkegaard’s comment that the knowledge of one’s own death is the essential fact that distinguishes us from animals. I looked around the exercise room wondering just how distinguished from the animals we modern humans are. The frenzied activity I was participating in at that moment—was it merely one more way of denying or postponing death? As a nation, do we grow sleek and healthy so that we do not have to think about the day our muscular bodies will be, not pumping iron, but lying stiff in a casket?
Martin Luther told his followers, “Even in the best of health we should have death always before our eyes [so that] we will not expect to remain on this earth forever, but will have one foot in the air, so to speak.” His words seem quaint indeed today when most of us, pagan and Christian alike, spend out days thinking about everything but death. Even the church focuses mainly on the good that faith can offer now: physical health, inner peace, financial security, a stable marriage.
Physical training is of some value, the apostle Paul advised his protégé Timothy, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. As I pedaled, straining against computer-generated hills, I had to ask myself: What is my spiritual counterpart to the Chicago Health Club? And then, more troubling: How much time and energy do I devote to each?
For two years I attended monthly meetings of a local chapter of Amnesty International. There I met good people, serious people: students and executives and professionals who gather together because they find it intolerable blithely to go on with life while other people are being tortured and killed.
Amnesty International’s local chapters use an absurdly simple technique to combat human rights abuses: they write letters. Our group adopted three prisoners of conscience, all of whom were serving long-term sentences for “unpatriotic activity.” Each week we would discuss their fates and report on the letters we had written to esteemed officials in their respective countries.
As we sat in a comfortable townhouse eating brownies and fresh vegetables and sipping coffee, we tried to envision how Jorge and Ahmad and Joseph were spending their days and evenings. Letters from their families gave us agonizing insight into their hardships. Despite our efforts to resist it, most of the time a vague feeling of powerlessness pervaded the room. We had received no word from Jorge in two years, and officials in his South American country no longer answered our letters. Most likely he had joined “the disappeared.”
The tone of earnest concern in the group reminded me of many prayer meetings I had attended. Those, too, focused group energy on specific human needs. Yet at Amnesty International no one dared pray, a fact that perhaps added to the sense of helplessness. Although the organization was founded on Christian principles, any trace of sectarianism had long since disappeared.
Here is a strange thing, I thought one evening. A worthy organization exists for the sole purpose of keeping people alive. Thousands of bright, dedicated people congregate in small groups centered on that singular goal. But one question is never addressed: Why should we keep people alive?
I have asked that question of Amnesty International staff members, provoking a response of quiet horror. The very phrasing of the question seemed heretical to them. Why keep people alive? The answer is self-evident, is it not? Life is good; death is bad (I presume they meant animal life is good, since we were munching vegetable life as we spoke).
These staff members missed the irony that Amnesty International came into existence because not all people in history see their equation as self-evident. To Hitler, to Stalin, to Saddam Hussein, death can be a good if it helps accomplish other goals. No ultimate value attaches to any one human life.
Amnesty International recognizes the inherent worth of every human being. Unlike, say, the Chicago Health Club, AI does not elevate beautiful specimens of perfect health: the objects of our attention were mostly bruised and beaten, with missing teeth and unkempt hair and signs of malnutrition. But what makes such people worthy of our care? To put it bluntly, is it possible to honor the image of God in a human being if there is no God?
To raise such questions at an Amnesty International meeting is to invite a time of stern and awkward silence. Explanations may follow. This is not a religious organization. . . . We cannot deal with such sectarian views. . . . People have differing opinions. . . . The important issue is the fate of our prisoners. . . .
In our strange society, it seems the questions most worth asking are the questions most ignored. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal lived during the seventeenth-century Enlightenment era, when Western thinkers first began scorning belief in a soul and the afterlife, matters of doctrine that seemed to them primitive and unsophisticated. Pascal said of such people, “Do they profess to have delighted us by telling us that they hold our soul to be only a little wind and smoke, especially by telling us this in a haughty and self-satisfied tone of voice? Is this a thing to say gaily? Is it not, on the contrary, a thing to say sadly, as the saddest thing in the world?”
I still belong to Amnesty International and contribute money to it. I believe in their cause, but I believe in it for different reasons. Why do strangers such as Ahmad and Joseph and Jorge deserve my time and energy? I can think of only one reason: that they bear the sign of ultimate worth, the image of God.
Amnesty International teaches a more advanced theology than the Chicago Health Club, to be sure. It points past the surface of skin and shape to the inner person. But the organization stops short—for what makes the inner person worth preserving, unless it be a soul? And for that very reason, shouldn’t Christians lead the way in such issues as human rights? According to the Bible, all humans, including Jorge and Ahmad and Joseph, are immortal beings who still bear some mark of the Creator.
Members of the Chicago Health Club do their best to defy or at least forestall death. Amnesty International works diligently to prevent it. But another group I attended faces death head-on, once a month.
I was first invited to Make Today Count, a support group for people with life-threatening illnesses, by my neighbor Jim, who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. There we met other people, mostly in their thirties, who were battling such diseases as multiple sclerosis, hepatitis, muscular dystrophy, and cancer. For each member of the group, all of life had boiled down to two issues: surviving and, failing that, preparing for death.
We sat in a hospital waiting area on molded plastic chairs of a garish orange hue (doubtless chosen to make the institution appear more cheerful). We tried to ignore the loudspeaker periodically crackling out an announcement or paging a doctor. The meeting began with each member “checking in.” Jim whispered to me this was the most depressing part of the meeting, because very often someone had died in the month since the last meeting. The social worker provided details of the missing member’s last days and the funeral.
The members of Make Today Count confronted death because they had no choice. I had expected a mood of great somberness, but found just the opposite. Tears flowed freely, of course, but these people spoke easily and comfortably about disease and death. Clearly, the group was the one place they could talk openly about such issues.
Nancy showed off a new wig, purchased to cover the baldness caused by chemotherapy treatments. She joked that she had always wanted straight hair, and now her brain tumor had finally given her an excuse. Steve, a young man with Hodgkin’s disease, admitted he was terrified of what lay ahead. His fiancée refused to discuss the future with him at all. How could he break through to her?
Martha talked about death. The disease ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s disease”) had already rendered her legs and arms useless. Now she breathed with great difficulty, and whenever she fell asleep at night there was a danger of death from oxygen deprivation. Martha was twenty-five years old. “What is it you fear about death?” someone asked. Martha thought a minute and then said this, “I regret all that I’m going to missnext year’s big movies, for example, and the election results. And I fear that I will one day be forgotten. That I’ll just disappear, and no one will even miss me.”
More than any other people I have met, members of the Make Today Count group concentrated on ultimate issues. They, unlike the Chicago Health Clubbers, could not deny death; their bodies bore memento mori, reminders of inevitable, premature death. Every day they were, in Saint Augustine’s phrase, “deafened by the clanking chains of mortality.” I wanted to use them as examples for my hedonistic friends, to walk down the street and interrupt parties to announce, “We’re all going to die. I have proof. Just around the corner is a place where you can see it for yourself. Have you thought about death?”
Yet would such awareness change anyone for more than a few minutes? As one of novelist Saul Bellow’s characters put it, the living speed like birds over the surface of the water, and one will dive or plunge but not come up again and never be seen again. But life goes on. Five thousand people die in America each day.
One night Donna, a member of the Make Today Count group, told about watching a television program on the public service station. In the program, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross discussed a boy in Switzerland who was dying of an inoperable brain tumor. Kübler-Ross asked him to draw a picture of how he felt. He drew a large, ugly military tank, and behind the tank he drew a small house with trees, grass, sunshine, and an open window. In front of the tank, just at the end of the gun barrel, he drew a tiny figure with a red stop sign in his hand. Himself.
Donna said that picture captured her feelings precisely. Kübler-Ross had gone on to describe the five stages of grief, culminating in the stage of acceptance. And Donna knew she was supposed to work toward acceptance. But she could never get past the stage of fear. Like the little boy in front of the tank, she saw death as an enemy.
Someone brought up religious faith and belief in an afterlife, but the comment evoked the same response in Make Today Count as it had in Amnesty International: a long silence, a cleared throat, a few rolled eyes. The rest of the evening, the group focused on how Donna could overcome her fears and grow toward the acceptance stage of grief.
I left that meeting with a heavy heart. Our materialistic, undogmatic culture was asking its members to defy their deepest feelings. Donna and the small Swiss boy with the brain tumor had, by sheer primal instinct, struck upon a cornerstone of Christian theology. Death is an enemy, a grievous enemy, the last enemy to be destroyed. How could members of a group that each month saw families fall apart and bodies deteriorate before their eyes still wish for a spirit of bland acceptance? I could think of only one appropriate response to Donna’s impending death: Curse you, death!
There was another aspect of Christian theology, too, the one, most sadly, that Make Today Count would not discuss. The Swiss boy had included his vision of Heaven in the background, represented by the grass and trees and the cottage with an open window. Any feeling like “acceptance” would be appropriate only if he was truly going somewhere, somewhere like home. That is why I consider the doctrine of Heaven one of the most neglected doctrines of our time.
“I think it is very hard for secular men to die,” said Ernest Becker, as he turned to God in the last months of his life.