The King of Fears
Sure, we all dread the Grim Reaper. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't get to know him better.
By Lincoln Swain
Years ago the Holiday Inn hotel chain promoted itself with the slogan, “The best surprise is no surprise.” What traveler wouldn’t be interested in such a promise? After all, many things can quickly ruin your stay away from home: a girlie magazine and a half-tippled pint of bourbon shoved under the bed, soiled sheets, a leaky facet, moldy tiles, boisterous fellow guests who keep the hours of a werewolf, the din of a nearby freeway. Yes, a clean, quiet place in a safe, convenient location is an easy sell given the alternatives.
But what about when the worst surprise is the best surprise?
How can that be?
Early in my pastoral career, I was to give a paper at a conference out on the West Coast and I decided to turn the visit into a vacation by going on to San Francisco where my wife would meet me. From there, we would explore the Napa Valley. A friend of mine with whom I attended divinity school and was now teaching at a small private school invited me to stay with him on my way to SF.
After fighting traffic out of Los Angeles, I found myself driving in the dark on a nearly deserted freeway. Finally, I arrived at the junction of the old California highway that leads to my friend’s village. I had the windows rolled down, the warm, buzzing spring air flowing through the car, the dashboard all aglow. The radio was off. Ordinarily I love to listen to music when I drive but that night I drove in silence.
What transpired next is hard to describe, because on the surface, nothing happened. The car did not swerve into the oncoming lane or go off the road or plunge into a ravine and burst into flames.
But something did happen. I had an epiphany. A terrible, terrible, beautiful epiphany that came and left in the blink of an eye: one day I will cease to exist on this earth.
It was a moment, as the theologian Paul Tillich put it, when “eternity touches time.” It was a surprise. And most terrifying of all, the surprise came from within me while I was very much awake. No dream. No nightmare. No angels. No demons. I was possessed by myself! As a Christian, I believe the afterlife awaits me. As a human being, I know that my death is a verifiable inevitability.
You might have expected this realization to throw me into the depths of depression. On the contrary. When I arrived at my friend’s house, I was in great spirits. We fired up the barbeque, sat on his patio and enjoyed scotch and burgers under the stars. I felt relieved. Not just because I had arrived safely into the warm hospitality of my friend, but because that night I had been, in a way, “born again.” In meeting my worst fear, I had in some strange way been liberated from fear.
Death is the king of fears. There’s nowhere to hide or to run when it comes. And as a popular song puts it, death is the “one dance you’ll do alone.” For good reason we build all kinds of barriers against death. Not just physical barriers—safety belts, alarm systems, guardrails—but mental ones as well. Refusing to think about or talk about our own death is a choice many of us make. Yet the more we repress this primal fact, the less chance we have of grasping its power to transform our life.
Look up from your computer right now. Are you at home? At a coffee shop? Doesn’t matter. Everyone you see right now—family, friends, strangers—has to face the same music.
And we hope that the music we hear is the welcoming call into heaven. But what is heaven? Where is it? If some of the devotional literature that is left in our mailbox is to be believed, we can expect to spend eternity either in the stylish waiting room of a San Diego dentist or a retirement community/zoological park where a young Chinese girl pets a lion and a woman in a sari tends to a cockatoo while a wizened black gent snacks on a ripe watermelon under the shade of patio furniture as a crowd of smiling spectators looks on. In the background, angels ride the arcs of rainbows.
As these images suggest, the longing for a celestial Eden is strong, an idyllic, familiar place in which one is at liberty but unburdened with the responsibility and the anguish of freedom. Over the centuries, soldiers in wars, religious or otherwise, have been willing to give up their lives for the promise of an eternal paradise. Priests, popes, mullahs, mendicants and politicians have worked harder than any resort developer to conjure up incredible visions of heaven worth dying for.
In Matthew 13:11, Christ refers to the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” Elsewhere he suggests that the kingdom of heaven exists “within and without” the individual and that “it covers the earth.” Christ’s parables suggest that heaven is a spiritual kingdom populated by souls. For Jesus, there is a direct connection between soulful living on earth and this kingdom. The kingdom of heaven, paradoxically, is expanded by the work of the living. And it is through good work that the individual becomes one with heaven. You create peace in your life now; you don’t wait for peace to be given to you in the afterlife. In such a light, death is hardly something to fear because in active faith you are living your afterlife right now.
I had a long-time parishioner pass away not long ago. He was very respected in the parish. Leonard was a giant of a man, 6’ 5’’, 325 lbs, a decorated veteran of the Korean War. After returning from active duty, he earned an engineering degree at a school near his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana and made his way north. You could write your own ticket in Detroit in those days if you had the dedication and the smarts. In no time, Leonard built a large and successful business in auto parts. He gave freely to charities and enjoyed appointments to many of their boards.
He could not have done it without his wife, Sally. She was from the same small town; same dreams, same values. They were high school sweethearts who married on her 18th birthday. Fifty years of marriage, children, grandchildren. They were a picture of tradition in the best sense of the word.
Leonard had never been particularly attentive to his health and had a long history of circulation problems. Finally, he had a stroke. He made a slow but steady recovery only to be finished off quickly by a massive heart attack on a Saturday afternoon while attending a Detroit Tigers game at the old stadium. This being Leonard, who could have asked for a better send off?
Sally knew her husband’s health was not the best but left him to his own devices—chronic snacking, overwork and inactivity. She herself is an avid hiker who belongs a women’s club that visits various celebrated trekking locales every year. Leonard was, like many successful men, open to selective counsel and only on selective issues. I watched Sally grieve but it was a knowing grief, of a widow long in the making.
Leonard’s body was flown to Indiana, where visitations and burial took place. I was asked to deliver the eulogy to a packed house in a large chapel and had no trouble finding both words of praise for a good man gone and words of comfort for those left in his wake.
Two months later, I had a call from Sally. She thanked me for my help at the funeral. She had already sent an appreciation card and I had seen her in church a number of times. We chatted for a few moments. Then she told me something that left me speechless.
She had been back to Indiana for ten days to tie up loose ends from the funeral and visit with old friends. Her children and grandchildren had scattered, returned home to their own lives. Every day while she was there, she visited Leonard’s resting place. Her parents were buried in the same graveyard. His were in the Catholic cemetery; he had converted to the Episcopalian church in order to marry Sally. Leonard had bought the plot and ordered the headstone. He was a man of detail. I don’t know if he had ever confronted his own mortality; the stroke might have been a tickle of coming attractions but he never confided this to me.
One day, Sally arrived at the grave to discover the headstone in place. There was Leonard’s name, his date of birth and the date of his passing. Below it was Sally’s name, her date of birth, a dash and a pregnant space. She could not believe what she was seeing. It was like a bad horror movie. She had mentioned many times to Leonard that she intended to be cremated and wanted her ashes scattered along her favorite hiking trail on Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, a place she considered holy.
Seeing her name on the headstone irritated her, she told me. Leonard knew her wishes and had plowed ahead with his own plan nonetheless.
She returned to Detroit and resumed her busy schedule of charity work. There were lunches and functions to attend but Indiana was never far from her mind. The anger slowly gave way to a nagging sense of guilt accompanied by longing. But this was only the beginning. She described feeling as if she was underwater and was sinking and sinking. The water became colder and the light began to dim.
Then, as she put it, she touched the black, hard bottom. And as she did, she realized something: she herself was going to die. She was in her garden, pruning a rose bush when this news hit her. A blink of an eye. From a snip of a bloom to oblivion on Mount Mitchell. She had never really entertained the thought before.
To see Leonard’s name etched in stone drove home the fact that he was really gone. To see her own triggered a delayed lighting bolt of consciousness that she would be gone as well. Leonard, blustery, indomitable Leonard with the big belly, the big car, the big house, the big brood, had been her shade from this blazing truth. She was now at a crossroads, repulsed yet aware of this awful gift that would not go away.
I felt an instant fraternity with her. Not pity, not sympathy. Fraternity.
We read of people who have had near death experiences—pulled from a fiery automobile smash-up, revived on an operating room table, rescued from the ocean in the last stages of drowning after a tidal wave.
But these are the extreme cases. Millions, billions of us discover the fact of death, our own looming death, in the most mundane moments of life when we least expect it. This is even more of a miracle when you consider the incessant jangle and juke of the mass media and the whirlwind pace of modern life, which seems designed to distract us from the mindfulness we need to live freely. The fear of life and the fear of death are companion menaces.
Only after living freely can one die freely. If you live in fear of life, you are already dead on your feet.
Acknowledging your own death: It is the worst surprise. It is the best surprise.
Lincoln Swain is the pseudonym of an Episcopal priest and theologian living in the Detroit area. His last piece for SoMA was Ghost in the Shell.
Excerpted from Dare to Defy: Conquering Fear with Active Faith, by Lincoln Swain. Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from Atomic Quill Press.
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