living through death

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

Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

From where does my help come?

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I’m still in the wilderness, so this will be short.

For those of you who feel as though your world has been torn open by the results of yesterday’s election, I offer, without comment, three items worth wrestling with/meditating on:

1. Richard Beck’s short post: The Kingdom of God, November 9, 2016

2. This:

anger

“What do most (if not all) of the emotions under the surface have in common? A sense of powerlessness. So which emotion in the graphic leads us to feel powerFUL? Yep. Unfortunately, angry behaviors just tend to lead to more of those emotions below the surface, fueling a cycle of powerlessness and the reactive, often control-bent, pursuit of (false) power. But true power comes through courageously embracing what’s below the surface—embracing our vulnerability.” -Shane Moe

3. And finally, this:

“Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.” ― Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, H/T Sara Mohs

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Written by Alex

November 10, 2016 at 7:22 am

Posted in Life, Uncategorized

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Building Our Own Home: Three Months In

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In the months since defending my dissertation, I’ve changed gears a bit. I haven’t been reading much and I’ve done next to zero writing. That might sound bad, but I assure you, I’ve not been completely idle. You see, my family and I broke ground on our new home on June 30th. We’re building it ourselves. Here’s a few things I’ve learned:

1. Believe the people who say that it’ll cost more than you think. “Yeah, that’s just suckers talking,” I thought, “They don’t know me!” Yet, even though I meticulously budgeted everything I could possibly think of, tried to overestimate a number of things, AND included a $10,000 “extra stuff” line item, we are still just barely in budget… I expect that to change in the near future (This is in part because I recently decided to go with spray foaming the rim joists and doing dense pack cellulose for the walls and cathedral ceiling).

2. What the space of our home “feels like” during construction changes all the time. We dug the hole and thought, “uh oh… we’re building a closet!” The footings went in and it felt even worse! Now, with the framing complete, what we thought was a quaint little 24×30 home feels gigantic! Very disorienting.

3. These new little impact drivers are FANTASTIC! Also, I LOVE LOVE LOVE my Bosch compound gliding miter saw with gravity rise stand and accompanying roller stands. Last one… I can’t get enough of this little “Snake bite” nail puller tool. For a guy who has only had a flat bar in the past, it’s like I’ve discovered a magical tool crafted by the elves!

4. Some phases of the build are impressive and dramatic. Others are so very very not. For example, I just spent the last 8 days (10 hours a day!) installing roof venting on our cathedral ceiling. Were you to walk in there on day one and again today, you’d be hard pressed to see that I’ve done anything other than fill the house with sawdust and wood scraps!

5. I need to constantly remind myself what I’m grateful for since there is ALWAYS the next absolutely crucial thing to be very worried about. “I’ll calm down once we dig the hole and have finally settled on the orientation of the home. Then I can just relax and build!” “I’ll calm down once we get the walls poured so the cave ins don’t knock over my concrete forms. Then I can just relax and build!” “I’ll calm down once we get the structure dried in. Then I can just relax and build!” Now here comes winter… etc, etc, etc. Unless I check myself, I will NEVER calm down.

6. After nearly a decade of graduate school in theology, working long and hard doing physical labor while creating a very tangible object feels so very good!

7. Stacking all your Sheetrock right next to the wall in the basement, while being space efficient, comes with the liability that you’ll now have to move it all again when it comes time to do the electrical.

8. You can’t make all your decisions on the front end. Learn to make place holder decisions that allow the project to move forward and work to be flexible as the work continues. I so very badly wanted to have everything perfectly planned out from the beginning, but this desire nearly led to a mental breakdown. You can’t possibly have everything decided for at the outset since so many of these decisions are interrelated and depend upon actually feeling a space that, at best, is represented only two-dimensionally at the beginning. Make decisions that are “good enough for now” and revisit.

9. When exhausted, dirty, and overwhelmed, remember why you’re doing this. In our case, we want to be here. We love our community. We wanted to build ourselves because we want to learn, grow, and increase our self-sufficiency (and we could never afford this house otherwise!). And finally, we wanted to build THIS house because we want to live in a space that facilitates a life rich in the values that are important to us.

It’s happening, it’s hard, but it’s worth it!

sunset-on-the-land

Written by Alex

September 25, 2016 at 9:05 am

It Is Finished!

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Yesterday, Monday, April 11th, between 9:30 and 11:30, I successfully defended my dissertation (I link to the full-text at the end of this post). It passed with no need for further edits and with a surprising amount of enthusiasm! It’s been nine years since I started my academic journey in theology. To be honest, the emotions are still trying to figure out what what they should be doing!

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The run up to my defense was chaotic. The person in charge of scheduling the defense was on maternity leave with no auto-response associated with their email address, so our request to schedule my defense (now already after the spring graduation deadline!) sat for an additional two weeks unanswered. When we finally got in touch with someone, things moved fast. Much faster than I was emotionally prepared for!

I was given essentially a week and a half to prepare. I’d never been to one of these before, so I was faced with the added difficulty of not really having a concept of what I was preparing for. At the very least, I knew there was to be a 10 to 20 minute introduction that I would have to give. Seeing that fairly objective, and also feeling the most anxiety about the presentation element of my defense, I got busy cranking out a stellar presentation.

I worked my brain to exhaustion repeatedly over the next ten days. Then, with two days left to practice and read through my draft one last time, I finished my presentation and gave it a test run…

It took me THIRTY EIGHT MINUTES to talk through about a THIRD of it!

The word “doomed” floated across my mind. I imagined myself walking into the defense hall, shrugging my shoulders and saying “Well, I tried to put together an intro, but I screwed it up. What say we just state the title nice and clearly and move on to the questions?”

Instead, I got up early the next morning, retreated to the detached garage in the back yard, stoked a nice fire and proceeded to craft a stripped-down version of both my talk and slides. I began practicing that night. More practicing the next day was combined with an afternoon of reading my dissertation again (while Megan sewed the button back onto the only pair of dress pants that fit me anymore!) Megan and I hit the road at 3:00pm to stay with her sister and our brother-in-law near St. Paul. To bed early, then awake, unable to sleep at 3:30 am. And finally, after some tense traffic, we were alone in an empty auditorium awaiting the arrival of my committee.

“The work is done” I kept telling myself. “All that’s left to do now is relax and be responsive to your readers.” My body seemed altogether unwilling to take my mind’s sage advice, so I fumbled around fretfully arranging the podium and occasionally walked to the window to get my mind off of the stark surroundings. There was a bronze sculpture called “Living Hope of the Resurrection” in the small garden just outside. Its presence was a gift.

The gift was to increase, for just then Megan returned to the conference room with a number of my friends and colleagues who had arrived. The room quickly filled with graduate students, recently graduated friends, and finally my committee, Dr Lois Malcolm (my adviser) and Drs Amy Marga and Mary Hess (my readers).

The actual defense was a blur. I recall feeling deeply relieved that things were finally underway, and pleasantly surprised at the general enthusiasm and encouragement of my committee. My only regret is that I once caused Dr Marga to forget her question when a certain topic she touched on led me to turn and wink at my good friend Derek Maris in the audience. Maybe regret is too strong of a word, but I did feel a little bad about it.

In the end, my committee helped me to reconnect with the possibility that there may well be something important going on in my work. After years of these ideas being couched within a process that we’ve just been trying to just get through, it’s been easy for me to lose sight of what led me to these ideas in the first place. They pushed me to really think about how the theological method I’ve begun to chart has validity for both religious communities as well as for a culture that has largely ceased to give a rip about religious communities. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Megan and I breathed a tremendous sigh of relief as we walked to the car, only to discover that we had gotten, not one, but TWO parking tickets… which turned out to be letters of congratulations that my Aunt Debra had snuck over sometime during the defense. 🙂

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My Facebook feed has been a non-stop accumulation of well wishes and congratulations ever since the first word went out yesterday. What a tremendous feeling. Thank you all!

And now, for those who are curious, I present to you the final draft of my dissertation: Dying to Live: The Paradox of Christian Salvation, The Terror of Death, And Developmental Stages Theory. It is a mix of personal narrative and academic reflection. Many of you have been a part of the narrative it contains. It is my hope that the narrative will only continue and deepen. Thank you!

Moving: A Reflection in the Form of a Note to My Kids

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In 10 days we will be moving away from Rice, MN. We’ve spent 12 years of our lives here. One of the things that I am most deeply grateful for that has emerged from this time is the love that has literally been born into the world between you, Adrian and Brynn. Yes, Adrian, you are prone to being a know-it-all in the presence of your sister. And, yes, Brynn, you are prone to squealing and whining in the presence of Adrian. But from the first smile that crossed Adrian’s face when you were born seven and a half years ago, you two have shared a love that has been our joy to witness. And that’s probably what breaks my heart most about this move…

I remember last year at conferences, Adrian, Mrs. Davis—who tended to be rather serious—got a big smile on her face as she described how much you loved being Brynn’s big brother at school. She told me how, when “leading the line,” if you heard her voice, you would make the whole line slow down in the hall so that you might be able to wave at Brynn as she passed by. Then this year, Brynn, Mrs. Christensen told us how Adrian comes into your room every morning and gives you a hug and a high-five before he goes to his own room. Someday, when you have a little more experience in this world, you will realize just how beautiful these images are. These are the last days, however. In Fergus you will be going to different schools…

Last night I was not feeling well, so I was trying to go to bed early. You two were in your room with the light on just jabbering away. I had to go in and have you shut all the lights off (including your lava lamp) and tell you get to sleep. You were both sitting there in your jammies (Adrian in his dinosaur footies, and Brynn, you in your princess nightgown) coloring a Minecraft coloring sheet. Once I was back in bed, and for the next half hour, you then decided to sing songs to each other (I have no idea about what), so I had to go tell you to stop that as well.

ab

You both are pretty nervous about the idea of having your own rooms. You’ve slept in the same room together ever since there was such a thing as you “together.” You keep asking if we can just make one room for you in the new house. There is, of course, a part of me that would give anything to build you one room in our new house where you could always live as our children, singing to each other in your jammies, even while we tried to get some sleep. It goes without saying that you will always have a room like that in the hearts of your mother and I, and in the heart of God, I suspect, these days live on as much more than memories. But in this life, things move on. We grow up. We say goodbye. We become ourselves, often in quite lonely and difficult ways.

Leaving is hard. Growing up is hard. But it’s part of life. I’ve gone through it myself… I’m still going through it. So, a bit of advice: Never forget this love you’ve known. Look for it in your new home. Create it with the new people who will enter your life. Reconnect with it in the lives of those of us who have been with you from the beginning, mom and I, your brother, your sister, your grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, your first neighbors and friends.

So there we go. I’m so deeply grateful for the life we’ve had here in Rice. I’m so deeply grateful for the love that you’ve grown to know. May we only grow deeper in that love as we move into this next chapter!

Written by Alex

March 1, 2016 at 12:50 pm

Posted in Life

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Only Idolators Can Compare Gods: On Wheaton College and Dr. Hawkins

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Do Muslims Worship the Same God?

If you can answer “yes” or “no” to this question, you’ve got yourself a problem. And that’s exactly where Wheaton College has found itself thanks to the words of one of its professors, Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins. In her attempt to love her Muslim neighbors, she affirmed (citing Pope Francis) that Christians worship the same God as Muslims. Obviously the stakes are high here, particularly for an evangelical institution that holds mission work to be central to its calling. So now a beautiful act of solidarity and compassion has been turned into a big problem (funny how often that happens).

In a certain sense, this problem can be easily resolved. In another sense, it can’t. The easy solution is a theological one (Miroslav Volf takes a fiery stab at the difficult problem here). Since it’s still rather early in the morning for me, I will content myself to address the easy one. The trouble is that this whole discussion has gotten of on the wrong foot. To be as blunt as possible (too blunt, in fact!):

Only idolators can compare gods.

The Christian tradition has always held that God is strictly incomprehensible, a consequence of which is that God is “ineffable,” that is, beyond superlative and therefore beyond our ability to speak of as we speak of created realities. This point bears directly on the problem we are examining. The moment that God can be analyzed as a concept and compared to other concepts of God, one has stepped away from the classical Christian tradition. One has, as it were, brought God out of heaven and made God a thing within creation: an idol. Depending on the heart of one’s piety, this may or may not be a problem (see this stunning story by the Muslim mystic, Rumi (thank you Adam!), for what I mean). Even so, idols are dangerous! Once we seemingly have God—the ultimate truth and power—within our conceptual grasp, those we deem as serving another god must be outside the truth of reality. If one happens to be of a compassionate disposition, one will attempt to convert them to one’s own concept of God, if not… well, we’ve seen where that has been going lately.

xory

 

However, the alternative is not a necessary one. And this is true even in the face of the somewhat misinformed objection that Muslims are monotheists while Christians are trinitarian. Have we just run into some god concepts here? The non-catechized, non-theologian will be forgiven for thinking that we have. But in reality, we have just stumbled into strange linguistic world of theology.

When doing theology, that is, when attempting to think and speak about God, one is engaging in an impossible act. We use words that have their origins within creation to speak of that which is the “source” of creation (scare quotes here to warn the reader not to mistake the word “source” for our creaturely experience of things that have a source, like children and rivers. See the difficulty here?).

To make my point by way of an authority a good bit more vast than my own, consider this remarkable passage from St. Augustine (For those unacquainted, Augustine is perhaps the greatest patriarch of the Christian church in history). After going into some detail attempting to explain the nature of the Trinity, he says the following:

Have we spoken or announced anything worthy of God? Rather I feel that I have done nothing but wish to speak: if I have spoken, I have not said what I wished to say. Whence do I know this, except because God is ineffable? If what I said were ineffable, it would not be said. And for this reason God should not be said to be ineffable, for when this is said something is said. And a contradiction in terms is created, since if that is ineffable which cannot be spoken, then that is not ineffable which can be called ineffable. This contradiction is to be passed over in silence rather than resolved verbally. For God, although nothing worthy may be spoken of Him, has accepted the tribute of the human voice and wished us to take joy in praising Him with our words. (On Christian Teaching)

Likewise, Pope Francis never said that Muslims worship the “same” God (as if God can be compared!). At a celebratory gathering in Rome of fraternal delegates of churches, ecclesial communities and international ecumenical bodies, Pope Francis welcomed the attendants by saying, “I then greet and cordially thank you all, dear friends belonging to other religious traditions; first of all the Muslims, who worship the one God, living and merciful…” For Pope Francis, steeped in the Christian tradition as he his, “The one God” does not designate a god concept, in the same way that the Trinity does not cash out a god concept. These are words and formulas that have as their referent the all-embracing reality, beyond, within, and through our frail creaturely experience. We call that reality God, even while warning that in doing so we, with Augustine, release any conceptual claim and speak, instead, with joy and praise.

Finally, it is worth recognizing that these linguistic maneuvers are patterned after the the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The divinity of Christ consisted in, not in entering the world as a god to confront all other gods, but rather, manifesting the divine in the act of giving himself away, without limit.

This is what I see Dr. Hawkins attempting to do in identifying with those who are being marginalized and threatened by the dominant culture. And that’s the sense in which this whole problem cannot be easily resolved. The deeper root is not linguistic, but ethical and tightly wrapped within the prevailing power structures. Perhaps Wheaton would retract their suspension if a more nuanced understanding of these words, indeed, these ethics(!), could be appreciated? We can and ought pray for it. May Christ be with them as he is clearly with Dr. Hawkins.

A Brief Update: An Interruption Due to Productivity

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As regular readers may have noticed, the blog posts have been a bit thin as of late. I feel like I owe you and explanation. You see, something unexpected has happened. Out of the handful of reasons I had for deciding to attempt to blog my way through my dissertation, one of the main ones was that it had the curious effect of increasing my productivity. It put me in the right head-space. However, about a month ago, the effectiveness of blogging for productivity was supplanted by a nondescript little feature that was hidden away in my writing application. Allow me to introduce you to Scrivener‘s “Project Targets” panel:

Scrivener Project Targets

Now, Scrivener is an unbelievable writing tool in general, but this little feature has just done it for my particular psychological makeup. You see, I’m the sort of person who can move heaven and earth if you just give me a little feedback. The moment my wife and I bought a car with a real-time MPG gauge I instantly became a hypermiler. I bought a scale and a calorie counting app and lost 20 lbs (and mostly kept it off… though the latter stages of this dissertation have begun to take their toll!). About a year ago I downloaded Personal Capital’s financial tracking app and have radically boosted our family’s savings as a result.

Each of these scenarios involved a new source of feedback and resulted in dramatic change. Why? Prior to having some real-time feedback, it was just numbers in the void. It didn’t “feel” real. Real-time feedback made these nebulous abstractions an immediate, concrete, measurable, reality. It just so happens that this is just the sort of thing that has the power to motivate me. I still have a bit of a teenage mind, you see. Abstractions that float somewhere off in the future (like “finishing the dissertation!”) don’t hit my brain as being real. Scrivener’s project targets panel has addressed this problem for me.

As any dissertation writing website well tell you, the key to finishing a dissertation is that you don’t sit down to write “your dissertation.” You sit down to write a page or so. Every. Day. “The muse honors the working stiff,” as Steven Pressfield says in The War of Art. The beauty of Scrivener’s project targets panel is that it gives the “working stiff” a sense of a accomplishment and hope.

Its design is elegant and effective. First you set the word count target for your entire project. Next you set the date that you want to complete your project on. From there you select the days of the week that you plan to write, and that’s it! The project targets panel will calculate how many words you must complete every day to meet your total word count goal by the date you have specified.

From the motivational standpoint your daily goal is then simply to make that little red bar move across the screen and turn to a delightful shade of green as it goes! Better yet, if you exceed your daily word goal, every day after that will be calculated to reflect your over-achieving efforts!

So all that’s just to say that I’m now two thirds of the way through chapter 5 of 6, but I haven’t posted in awhile because I’ve been busy “movin’ the progress bar!” I aim to have this whole show wrapped up shortly, at which point I will then get to work posting the rest of my project here.

So if you’re a feedback nut and find yourself searching for the motivation to complete a large writing project, check out Scrivener and get busy movin’ the bar!

Written by Alex

June 10, 2015 at 11:25 am

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

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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…

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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