Courage in the Face of Our Mortality

“Courage in the Face of Mortality,” Bob Ryder

Continuing our series on courage, on this last Sunday of October we turn our attention to courage in the face of mortality. It seemed appropriate to think about death in these days before our observances of the Day of the Dead, All Hallow’s Eve, Samhain, All Souls, and All Saints Days. Let’s begin with a few readings:

Pagan author and teacher Starhawk writes that Samhain is…“the night when the veil is thin that divides the worlds…when the harvest is gathered and the fields lie fallow. The gates of life and death are opened and to the living is revealed the Mystery: that every ending is but a new beginning.  For Pagans, death and birth are intertwined. Our goddesses and gods all represent aspects of the cycle of birth, growth, death, and regeneration. Every good gardener knows that fertility is born out of decay.  Every fallen leaf becomes part of the soil that feeds the roots of growing trees.  At Samhain, we take time to remember and commune with those who have gone before, to express gratitude for what they’ve given us. In our frantic pace, we tend to forget our past.  Few of us know much about our families beyond a generation or two back. Remembering the dead can help us keep a sense of connection to our roots.”

George Carlin – “Getting dead…

“Henry IV – Part 1” William Shakespeare
PRINCE HENRY – Why, thou owest God a death.
FALSTAFF – ’Tis not due yet. I would be loath to pay Him before His day.

Mary Oliver – “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”

“I Will Not Die an Unlived Life” – Dawna Markova
I will not die an unlived life. I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire. I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me, to make me less afraid, more accessible, to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise. I choose to risk my significance; to live so that which came to me as a seed goes to the next as a blossom and that which came to me as a blossom, goes on as fruit.

REFLECTION
What is your relationship with death?  In what ways do you need courage to come to terms with it?  That’s the question I’ll invite you to consider, and about which you may share a thought if you like when we pass the microphone in a few minutes.

How many phrases can you think of that finish with the word death?  Probably a lot if we took a moment.  Sudden death, slow death, tragic death, peaceful death, heroic death, coward’s death, untimely death, gentle death…  It’s a complex subject, much more so than I could have imagined as a child.  It made a big impression on me somewhere in my teens when the pastor of my church offered a sermon on death and noted matter-of-factly that “death often comes as a friend.”  Up to that point, I’d always thought of death as terrifying and not to be spoken of. It was a real gift to have the subject rendered approachable.

Gathering my thoughts for this reflection, one of the first words that occurred to me about death is “monolithic.”  Mortality is as close to a universal human perception as there is – everyone experiences it, almost everyone thinks about it from time to time.  It’s like the dominant feature of a landscape – unmistakable, unavoidable.  The image of Mount Rainier comes to mind.  When you’re in that part of Washington State, Mt. Rainier isn’t the only thing you can see – you don’t even necessarily have to look at it – but you can’t help being aware of if now and then.

Mt. Rainier has both a macro and micro-presence.  It affects the weather in the entire region, yet golfers good enough to play that precisely try to take the gravitational effect of Rainier into account when they’re putting.  I don’t know whether the “inverse-square” law of gravity adds up enough to make an actual difference in how a golf ball rolls across a green.  Putting lends itself to over-thinking.  But if nothing else Rainier can at least get into a golfers’ head – and perception is reality, as they say.  If you’re aware of it, it makes a difference.  Likewise, the monumental reality of death inevitably affects us all in both grand and subtle ways, which is as it ought to be.

For instance, if we’re paying attention death can make our time and our experiences the more valuable for acknowledging that life is a limited commodity. Opportunities to make a contribution in the world, to experience the exhilaration of a windy day, to learn to play an instrument or run for elected office, to look at a Van Gogh painting, to say “I’m sorry” or “I love you” – all these possibilities come with an expiration date.  “Use it or lose it!” as the saying goes.

“If we’re paying attention” I said just now.  We don’t always think about death, hopefully.  There’s no use obsessing about it.  Occasional acknowledgement is all that’s necessary – enough to make us schedule our prostate exams and mammograms, enough to remind us to order the salad instead of steak.  Life is both temporary and fragile.  Death – far from being some terrifying monster hiding under the bed – can be a friend reminding us to appreciate our moments and take care of the vehicles in which we live and love and learn while we’re here.  Acknowledging mortality can help us enjoy and extend the reality of our unlikely, tentative existence.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to harvest;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to rejoice;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to scatter stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to abstain;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time for silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

 

It makes sense to think of death in the context of courage.  It’s daunting to realize one day we’ll come to the end of our story.  The unknowability of what lies beyond, of “what dreams may come” can haunt us if we let it. There’s the question of what lies beyond, for instance.  Perhaps we come to dreamless peace and the conclusion of all experience, such as when we undergo anesthesia for surgery.  I’ve had surgery a couple times in recent years, and in both cases I recall coming back after the procedure to realize the nothingness of hours that passed while I was under.  It was blank, void, zero, there was no “me” for that interval, which I interpret looking back on it as utterly peaceful and certainly nothing to dread.  If that non-experience is what we mean by “rest in peace” when one comes to the end of biological life, Hamlet was right – “Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

On the other hand, the imagination can conjure terrible fantasies if we give it too much slack.  And it’s no help having religious traditions threaten nightmarish suffering-as-retribution for sins we’ve committed, as if a creator could be that humanly petty.  On his deathbed my father-in-law was tortured by fears instilled when he was a boy attending Pentecostal worship services where preachers spoke of hellfire and torment by demons.  Obviously, no one is perfect and Jerry had shortcomings like any of us.  On the whole, though, he was as good and decent a man as you’d ever hope to meet, and to have such anguish woven into his psyche to haunt him in his last days… we owe each other better than that.

Time moves in only one direction, which necessitates the life skill of managing how much energy we spend on regrets.  In my estimation there’s a place for remorse insofar as it can move us to improve our priorities, press us to recalibrate our strategies for navigating this life.  One of my regrets is that I either didn’t know or didn’t recall this translation of the 23rdPsalm from the Bay Book of Psalms.  When I saw him for the last time, Jerry and I sat on lawn chairs in his front yard.  I assured him I’d always look after Phyllis and Susan, and we reminisced about our shared history – how we liked each other the first time we met, how I took him for pizza to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage, how we transcended some angry moments with each other, how I’d always let him win at ping pong and cribbage. And aware as I was of his anxiety about whether he’d been a good enough man to merit a place in heaven, I regret that I didn’t have the presence of mind to share these words to him.

Psalm 23 – The Bay Book of Psalms
The Lord to me a shepherd is,
Want therefore shall not I,
He in the folds of tender grass
Doth make me down to lie
To waters calm he gently leads
Restore my soul doth he
He doth in paths of righteousness
For his names sake lead me.
Yea though in valley of death’s shade
I walk none ill I’ll fear,
Because thou art with me, thy rod,
and staff my comfort are.
For me a table thou hast spread
In presence of my foes;
Thou dost anoint my head with oil
My cup it over-flows.
Goodness and mercy surely shall
All my days follow me;
And in the Lord’s house I shall dwell
So long as days shall be

Unable to go back and share that comfort with a beloved family member in his hour of need, I share it with you now in hopes it might nestle in a corner of your memory for the moment it can offer you some peace.  “…in the Lord’s house I shall dwell so long as days shall be.”

So, what about courage?  Personally, I’m just not afraid of being dead.  I have my preferences about how I’ll “get dead” when the time comes, to whatever extent I have control over that process – though I don’t let myself worry about it.  Susan and I both try to keep our affairs in order and up-to-date.  We have wills and advanced medical directives and medical powers of attorney established.  If you could benefit from attending to some of all of those details, I’d recommend organizations such as the Illinois chapter of “Compassion and Choices” of which several NCC folks are founding members.  Our own Betty Rademacher still participates.  Jim Turner is well versed in end of life issues, or you’re welcome to talk to me or Susan, and we can help you connect with resources that can be helpful.  The online edition of this manuscript also has a link to a reflection Betty and I lead together a couple of years ago.  (https://nccnormal.org/living-and-dying-with-dignity/) as well as the “Compassion and Choices” website.

For my part, the aspect of mortality that calls for courage is about not wasting the gift of this “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver expresses it.  Life can be taken from us by hateful violence, as we saw yet again yesterday in Pittsburgh.  We need courage to live the values of hospitality and justice in a society plagued by a culture of ignorance and fear.  I’m inspired by the Tree of Life congregation, who were very active in the cause of welcoming immigrants to our nation, despite the risks of provoking retribution by hateful people.

And we need courage to realize that life is a limited commodity in general.  Whether life ends in an accident or by violence, whether by illness or natural causes after many decades, time is not to be taken for granted.  Of the recent generations in my family, none has lived longer than 85 years, so far as I know.  Assuming a similar genetic endowment and barring an accident or random illness, I’m 55 so I might have another 30 years. Factor in that health care is better than it was a generation ago, I take better care of myself than they did.  Let’s say I’m an outlier and I get an extra 5% – in round numbers that might get me to 90, another 35 years.  In any case, it’s practically certain that I have more yesterdays than I have tomorrows. And if I’m going to make the most of my time on earth, if I’m going to avoid taking it for granted, I’ll need to summon the courage to pay attention and seize the day; courage to overcome both complacency and fear.  Yesterday, death came abruptly and violently our neighbors in the Pittsburgh “Tree of Life” synagogue.  This past, Thursday death came as an overdue friend to Dodie Hirst to free her from the struggles and discomfort of a long decline.  Just days before that, death came to the very much-loved Iris Harley Kirk Narlesky, a moments-old newborn – grand-niece to Kathleen and great-granddaughter to Peg and John.    Death can be timely or tragic, predictable or capricious.  But it comes to us all one way or another, and no matter whether it comes on some unknown distant day or this very afternoon, it will take fortitude and concentration and commitment – it will take courage – to approach each day as the rare and precious gift that it is, and to keep in our hearts those who have gone ahead into that most primal of mysteries.

What is your relationship with death?  In what ways will you need courage to come to terms with it?  Take a moment to gather a thought you’d like to share, and I’ll begin passing the microphone after a minute or so of quiet.