living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Terror of Death

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!

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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