September 3, 2020

Over the past months, a stark contrast has emerged between two very different experiences of lockdown among my congregation. Some have had lots of time on their hands, but have experienced a kind of existential malaise of meaning and purpose. Others have had a surfeit of purpose — often, but not always, centred around the care for young children — but no time for themselves.

The former are often younger, single people who have left the bosom of their families. Without work to get up for, and experiencing extended periods of introspective solitude and perhaps even loneliness, the night demons are free to do their worst. During lockdown, questions of what life is all about have pressed down hard on the single bedroom in the flat share. What is the use of having all the freedom in the world to make one’s own life choices, when all the options available look equally empty? From this perspective, death contains a kind of debilitating terror that can be dwelt upon, often over and over.

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Those of the latter type have literally no time for such existential worries. Especially mothers with young children. Without the support and respite provided by nursery schools or childminders, the day and the night are dominated by a continual concern for the welfare of their dependents. As weeks turned to months, the constant and unrelenting responsibility for children or elderly and vulnerable adults has left many exhausted, drained and feeling like they have lost themselves in the care for others. There is a form of death in this experience, too — a loss of self that is often what the fear of death amounts to. “There is no me left,” as one of my congregation and mother of three explained to me the other week.

It was with her words ringing in my head that I read Tom Chivers’s intriguing piece in UnHerd about those who desire to live on and on, if not forever, then for a much greater length of time than our bodies presently allow. “Literally everything gets me thinking about death,” he admits. “I could be eating a Dairy Milk and think something like ‘Gosh, I wonder if I’ve already eaten the majority of Dairy Milks I will eat in my lifetime.’” I have a number of congregants who have expressed similar feelings.

Nonetheless, I wondered what that exhausted mother of three might make of this? Between wiping chocolate off the sofa for the umpteenth time, and stopping the children fighting with each other, and preparing their tea, would she be counting down Dairy Milks? I know, it’s not a fair comparison; Chivers was deliberately sending himself up. But even so, it got me thinking about how we approach death.

Martha Nussbaum, in a brilliant essay on why the immortal Greek gods sometimes fall in love with mortal human beings — Calypso with Odysseus, for example — explains that there are certain attractive virtues that the gods, being immortal, are unable to manifest precisely because of their immortality. Top of the list is sacrificial love. What sense can be made of sacrificial heroism, risking one’s life to save another, if one’s life is never really in danger? Odysseus risks everything for the one he loves, even his own death, and that makes him so much more attractive and commendable. And what sense can be given to the motherly love of the immortals, she questions, when there are never any issues about the welfare of their immortal children? Mrs Zeus is not bothered that the stair gate is closed. Her one-year-old wouldn’t hurt himself if he fell, so what’s the worry? Mrs Zeus wouldn’t say “there is no me left”. She would happily and calmly have her nails done as her kids played with matches and the petrol can.

In other words, so much of what we value about human life — and sacrificial love especially — is bound up with intrinsic human vulnerability. What makes human beings so beautiful is precisely their willingness and ability to sacrifice themselves, their time, their health, their sanity, for others. As Chivers concludes: “you-cannot-die immortality is likely a curse, not a blessing. No one reads vampire stories or ghost stories – souls forced to wander the earth long after all their loved ones have died, unable to rest – and thinks ‘Yup, gotta get me some of that’. Immortality is the archetypal monkey’s-paw wish-that-goes-wrong.”

There are, of course, plenty who are ready to die. Those who have a sense that their time has come. But I think there’s another sort of death experience that’s worth pointing out: the giving up of oneself in such a way that all the self-focused anxiety of what-will-become-of-me seems to drop away.

Towards the end of the piece Chivers wonders: “Maybe this [cryogenic technology] is all just a nerd’s version of praying for the afterlife, although I think not.” And he is right to think not. In Christian terms, eternal life is not a life without death or one that has developed some curious mystical technology to avoid it. “Those who lose their life will find it” is an invitation to find liberation from the Dairy Milk problem by dissolving oneself in the love of others – an invitation of which motherly love is the most obvious and impressive example.

When St Paul writes that death has lost its sting, he is claiming that there is a glorious kind of freedom to be enjoyed when one gets beyond the obsessive anxiety of endless self-preservation. For those who have placed the centre of gravity of their lives outside of themselves, then the prospect of one’s own death can never be as it was before. Death loses its sting.

Most of us, though, experience the problem of death on a number of levels at once; both as a threat to our own singular unique existence and as the loss of self that takes place as we care more about things other than ourselves. Only those we call saints are able to travel fully beyond their own existential anxieties by losing themselves in the service of others.

I have met a few in my time. My old boss, the priest who trained me to become a priest, died a couple of months ago. An extraordinary man, he once told me – and I completely believed him — that he was totally uninterested in the question of what would become of him after death. That claim made a lasting impression on me, and still seems to be the mark of someone who has been liberated in just the way St Paul described. The more my old boss gave away of himself, the more of his own needs that he abandoned and set aside, the more he seemed to grow into a kind of serenity. And he met death with the same composed equanimity.

The transhumanist approach presumes too quickly the only answer to death is for us to go on and on forever — or, at least, for such an extended period of time that we will eventually choose death as a welcome relief. But I wonder whether all this desire for just more time isn’t itself a part of the problem, and indeed that it represents a kind of fearfulness that deepens our anxiety rather than deals with it.

I have known people smile as they die. I want what they have.