living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Interlude in the Form of a Dream: The Domestication of Terror

with 9 comments

I don’t normally begin my writings this way, but, last night I had a dream that shook me to my core. I will describe it to you shortly, but for now, I have a confession to make. For quite some time, I have been thinking and writing about the fear of death and all the various ways this fear limits our life and separates us from a fuller life with the world we live in, each other, and even ourselves. The problem is that I feel that I’ve begun to suggest that there is a relatively easy solution to the matter, namely, that we ought to simply “embrace our limitations” and accept our mortality. Unfortunately, this straightforward and easy sounding solution is, to use a technical term that a dear friend of mine is especially fond of, bullshit.

Why? The reason is apparent to anyone who has tried to boot-strap themselves into “living as if each day is your last.” The best of intentions are utterly impotent when faced with the powerful psychological forces that predominate nearly every second of our walking life. These forces suck the terror and wonder out of each moment, leaving us with an experience that is “normal” and “everyday.” It’s hard to live each day as if it’s your last because each day is already already slotted for playing our role in the cultural system that is designed (though not consciously) to keep life from being too terrifying and too wonderful, in a word: safe. And we are, all of us, committed to maintaining this safety! For that reason, the call to live each day as if it is our last gets transformed into a slightly renewed attempt to be nicer to to our kids, or perhaps taking that vacation day we’ve been putting off. But what it does not do (and how could it?) is reduce us to tearful abandon, shedding every last deadweight of normal everyday life and living into an intensity that only emerges when the illusion of safety is utterly torn away.

What does this tell us? It tells us that there are two distinct awarenesses in play and that language about the problem and solution can be appropriated on both levels but take on radically different meanings. There is the everyday awareness that we all, save but for a few exceptional occasions, inhabit (Becker will characterize this as life within the unreflective grip of our repressions) and there is awareness with all our defenses stripped bare. It is here in this latter awareness that our deepest problem lies, and for that reason only a solution that can reach here will be adequate. Needless to say, even exhortations of great seriousness to our normal everyday awareness to “embrace its limits, etc…” will be as effective as telling a solider on the front lines to “relax.”

So what drove this point home for me? I had already known it on an intellectual level. Thinkers in the Augustinian tradition like Martin Luther, Paul Tillich and Becker had already made the point for me, often in striking ways. Consider Becker’s words:

“In this way we realize directly and poignantly that what we call the child’s character is a modus vivendi [mode of life] achieved after the most unequal struggle any animal has to go through; a struggle that the child can never really understand because he doesn’t know what is happening to him, why he is responding as he does, or what is really at stake in the battle. The victory in this kind of battle is truly Pyrrhic: character is a face that one sets to the world, but it hides an inner defeat. The child emerges with a name, a family, a play world in a neighborhood, all clearly cut out for him. But his insides are full of nightmarish memories of impossible battles, terrifying anxieties of blood, pain, aloneness, darkness; mixed with limitless desires, sensations of unspeakable beauty, majesty, awe, mystery; and fantasies and hallucinations of mixtures between the two, the impossible attempt to compromise between bodies and symbols. …sexuality enters in with its very definite focus, to further confuse and complicate the child’s world. To grow up at all is to conceal the mass of internal scar tissue that throbs in our dreams. (The Denial of Death, 29.)

There it is. It was the dream.

* * * * * *

My family and I were just sitting down for supper, but the house we were in was different than the one we now live in. It was older, plaster walls, sort of a light blue colored paint, and arched doorways. The room was lit somewhat dimly, but nothing was overly amiss. As we prepared to say our meal-time prayer, my daughter Brynn realized that she wanted something from the kitchen, so she pushed away from the table and ran off. Adrian, true to form, followed right after her. This is a common theme in our home, and it was met with my own common form of annoyance. The kitchen was through a door that was across the table from me and down a short hallway, thus being out of my view. The soft clattering of dish-ware could be heard as they got whatever it was they were after.

Then, as often occurs when Mom and Dad are out of sight, Brynn starts crying. Her older brother, Adrian, is usually to blame. My annoyance is growing. Then, things get serious. Brynn’s whiny cry turns to wailing. It was not wailing in terror or in pain. She is crying out as if someone has just ripped the head off her favorite doll. My wife Megan and I shoot up from our chairs (things begin happening very quickly now). Brynn’s wailing is not stopping. We haven’t heard a thing from Adrian. Megan and I begin running towards the kitchen, then, as we reach the hallway, a bright flash goes off outside the house and everything is jolted by the concussion of a thunderous boom! At the same time, what sounds like someone taking a 2×4 and sticking it into the wooden spokes of a quickly turning wheel begins erupting from all around us. Imagine the sound of an engine that has been in an accident but is still running with the accelerator floored and mechanical parts violently tearing into each other.

We’re in the hallway now. As I enter the kitchen (Megan is gone), all the electricity goes out. Brynn is not there, nor is Adrian. I can still hear her wailing inconsolably. The sound is deafening. It’s night. I race down the stairs to the entryway. The sound of her is getting further away. As I reach the entryway the pressure all around me changes as a tremendous wind surges over the house. She’s not in the house anymore. A dog starts barking. I open the door to the outside to witness sheets of rain pouring down. Lightning is flashing. The trees are thrashing in the wind. The wooden spoke sound is relentless. Out through the rushing wind I can now just barely hear Brynn’s crying. She’s almost beyond reach. There’s no sign of Adrian…


It was here, at 4:45 in the morning that Megan woke me from my nightmare. Though my panicky breathing slowed within a few minutes, and though I knew immediately that it was “only a dream,” the visceral terror that accompanied the experience was slow to leave me. Like a child, I wanted nothing more than to cover my head with my blanket to keep the terror away. The hairs all over my body kept standing on end, repeatedly. And even as I write this, my body tingles at the memory. I had to write this down before the impact had worn off and it had faded into the pale categories of my everyday state of mind.

This is the mass of internal scar tissue that throbs in our dreams. Somewhere in there is the meaning of the terror of death. What could it possibly mean to “embrace one’s limits” and “accept one’s mortality” when one’s limits and mortality represent not the warm and cozy idea that “one day I will die,” but instead the utter undoing of all reason and submergence of our most cherished loves? There is no easy answer to our terror of death (nor is there a “difficult” answer, for that matter). And to the extent that I have given this impression, forgive me or consider me a fool.

This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.

Written by Alex

April 9, 2015 at 2:30 pm

9 Responses

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  1. Thank you for this. I am a avid reader of your blog but I am not usually one to comment. I am very interested in the line of reflection you are working on because one, it touches my daily work as a palliative care chaplain in a hospital and two, because Tillich, Becker, and Merton have been longtime companions in my spiritual development and so it is not too hard for me to follow along. I am looking forward to dipping into Sebastian Moore though I worry I will not find him as accessible in his own words as you have made him!

    I love this post because I think you have put your finger on the visceral fear of death, the one that is present when all “our awareness is stripped bare of our defenses” and we feel it more than know it. What will help then? The dream brings that reality to life. I engage the fear of death symbolically and think about it on it at that level, but it seems to me that when death comes ( the way I encounter it in the patients I work with) it emerges from within, in our bodies, and it is unexpected, lonely, and encompassing. What help is knowing then?

    Like you I think about death and dying all the time and I swing between thinking of it as domesticated and managable and as a wild, pitiless hunter. I had hoped that working in the proximity of death would vitalize me, fill me with that carpe diem thing, but instead I have found everpresent reality of death keeps me at the rivers edge of my fear where I know for sure that one day, the river will sweep me and eveyone I love away too. I am still not sure how best to use my experiences to explore that ” mass of internal scar tissue” but I sure appreciate your work in this area. Thanks for all the hard work.

    Michael Lemaire

    April 10, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    • Hi Michael,
      Sorry for the delay here. I was just packing up to head off on vacation with my family when you commented last week. I’m very glad that you took the time to write! Do check out Sebastian Moore. To the extent that I’ve made him accessible, I’ve most certainly shaved off his wild and wooly greatness. I discovered him through David Schnarch (a marital/sexual therapist whose excellence I cannot stress enough). I was thrilled to discover that Becker was always in the background for Moore and also that with this discovery I now had a tight little community of conversation partners for my dissertation. 🙂

      One particular aspect of Moore that I know you will love follows from what you say here:

      “What will help then? …[W]hen death comes (the way I encounter it in the patients I work with) it emerges from within, in our bodies, and it is unexpected, lonely, and encompassing. What help is knowing then?”

      This is so perfectly put. And to your point, Moore makes much use of Eugene Gendlin who wrote a book called Focusing. Gendlin’s schtick is a method of body focusing that helps people tune into “what the body knows.” He’s found that most of us have been trained to tune out this body wisdom and instead live in a rationalized version of ourselves and reality (i.e. we are in the service of an abstracted image rather than the real, a sort of narcissism). Moore sees this as crucial and appropriates Gendlin’s work as a means of listening for the Spirit. I’d have to believe the applications for your line of work would be tremendous.

      Thanks again for writing, Michael. Please do share your wisdom more in the future! I’d love to hear how these ideas are landing with someone like yourself!


      April 20, 2015 at 8:51 am

  2. Salvation as peace of mind? Not in this world. Call me Satan, if you like, but the Buddha and the Christ offered the consolation of an eternal perspective with a way of living fearlessly that grew out of it. But Blondeau doesn’t?

    Actually, I’m not sure about that. The Passion week we just went through showed us an overwhelmed Jesus, not a Jesus without fear, whereas Planonism and Buddhism are married to views which foster emotional disengagement as ideals, despite acts of “compassion”–which may be acts of solidarity with lower spiritual beings…or hard to translate concepts…?

    So, what noetic foundation best stimulate exemplary human life? Is the very question prejudicial?

    BTW: I’m thinking through a church model based on tamales, frijoles, and kindness (to the best of us sinners’ ability). Coffee sometime this summer?

    Tracy Witham

    April 11, 2015 at 4:29 am

    • Tracy,
      No one has traversed that path with more vigor and class than Augustine: “For to be quite free from pain while we are in this place of misery is only purchased, as one of the world’s literati perceived and remarked, at the price of blunted sensibilities both of mind and body. And therefore that which the Greeks called ἀπάθεια, and what the Latins would call, if their language would allow them, ‘impassibilitas,’ if it be taken to mean an impassibility of spirit and not of body, or, in other words, a freedom from those emotions which are contrary to reason and disturb the mind, then it is obviously a good and most desirable quality, but it is not one which is attainable in this life.” The City of God, 410.

      I may be in a place where I’m still struggling to emotionally appropriate this insight. I don’t believe it is yet a part of the fabric of my day to day mode of operation. For all my hopeful talk of “befriending all that is in us” (to use a wonderful phrase by Moore), I’m ceaselessly confronted with the reality that simply “knowing” on a rational level the truth of these ideas changes nothing. This is actually an important part of the argument I’m crafting, but that only seems to deepen the problem that even a brilliant success of my argument will be utterly futile for those “without ears to hear…” which, unfortunately, includes me.

      Coffee. Yes. Shoot me an email.


      April 20, 2015 at 9:05 am

  3. Dear Michael and Tracy,
    Thank you for both of your responses! I want to get back to you, but I can’t swing it at the moment. I look forward to responding to you both soon!


    April 11, 2015 at 6:57 pm

  4. Wow, really touching post. Those dreams can really be shaking. It’s like they grip us by the bone and you can just feel it touch your soul. They are terrifying.

    I feel like for most of my life I’ve been looking for that “solution” to the terror and fear that arises from death (But then again, who hasn’t?). No solutions yet, just some coping mechanisms to help with the fear here and there. Maybe that’s the best we can do (As much as I don’t want to admit that). I felt like your beginning paragraphs were a good reminder for me, that anything that sells itself as a solution is usually, to borrow your friend’s technical term, BS. I feel like these ideas are helpful intellectually, but man when nightmares like this pop up, my intellect is nowhere to be found! hah

    I’m reminded of a 17th century Zen Monk, Suzuki Shosan, and his words. He’d say that if one feels that they’ve settled the matter of life and death, then they’ve given up on the matter because the matter is never settled. He’d also speak about falling for “clever tricks” that delude one’s self into thinking that they’ve settled the matter.

    Anyways, I look forward to more from you as always. 🙂

    Robert Stefanic

    April 15, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    • Hi Robert,
      Good to hear from you again. Sounds like Suzuki Shosan has a very Lutheran outlook. This reminds me of a story that one of my professors told me about a time that Paul Tillich was at some meeting of world world leaders that called upon all “men of good will” to participate in a declaration (or something). Tillich remained seated while everyone else in the room stood to show their support. When asked what the problem was, he stated that he didn’t believe there were any men of good will. 🙂

      Again, pointing to the fact that the ambiguity of existence if never resolved for us.


      April 20, 2015 at 9:13 am

  5. Wowza! Several things came to my mind as I read this. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was raped by the teenage brother of a fourthgrade classmate in the restroom of my neighborhood park. Bc he threatened to kill me & my parents if I ever told I kept quiet. Nothing was the same after that. I feel as tho I have literally lived what your dream means; loss of safety, loss of innocents, loss of family, emotional injury & loss of feeling desirable by my family & thus not worthy of being protected from further harm, introduction to gross evil in my community, fear that worse would follow and it did.


    April 28, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    • Louis,
      Thank you for your comment. I’m saddened to read your story, and honestly quite taken aback that you’ve been able to relate it to an experience that comes from my relatively unruffled life. It makes me wonder if the psychoanalysts are right, that emerging into self-awareness as a child really is as traumatic as they describe it, so much so that it must be repressed beneath the surface of our everyday awareness. Abuse victims often are spared the mercy of being able to repress their wounds… I do hope you’ve found a safe context to seek healing.


      April 28, 2015 at 6:48 pm

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