The Fear of Death

Events that vividly remind us of our mortality push people into extreme stances.

The attacks in Paris and San Bernadino inflame Islamaphobic bigotry, because people have been reminded that there is the possibility that might die at the hands of a radicalized Muslim militant. The vividness of the reminder overwhelms empirical risk assessment. We have a far greater chance of being killed by a lightening than being killed in a terrorist attack.

From what I read and hear, it appears that the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement is being driven by the constant reminders that any black person may be killed by police in any situation. I have read people who sum up their demand as simply "Stop Killing Us."

And what about the random, mass shooters? Every time we see another on the news, we are reminded of the possibility of our own death. It is one thing to think of one dying some far off day of old age or disease. It is another to think that it could come today because you were in the wrong movie theatre.

The fear of death starts a search for a solution to find safety again.

The remedy for the fear of the death has been, and still is, the transcendent - what is it that gives life meaning no matter how it ends?

"Keep Calm and Carry On." These are words not heard on the Republican Debate stage last week. Notice, though, that the words appear under a crown, a symbol of the transcendent nation of Britain. No matter what happened to you personally, your life or death was subsumed into the preservation of Britishness. Carrying on calmly was your role in a greater drama, and knowing that brought both clarity and comfort.

The crown and the nation are atavistic, backward looking and dangerous agents of transcendence. There are those who would love to post these posters everywhere but replace the crown with the flag. Among conservative politicians the desire to play Churchill is comically obvious.

But we know that the nation and the flag are not transcendent. We have the experience of the first decade of this century, when 9/11 brought up a resurgence of transcendent and mystical patriotism that was exploited for senseless war, partisan gain, corporate profits, and the ambition for presidential greatness. Again, it is comically obvious that these small men and women want to be a great war-time President in whom the frightened nation places its trust. The only obstacle is that we apparently are not quite frightened enough to be that desperate.

How do I name the transcendent that give me hope against the inevitability of my own death, even if my death is not a "good death", in a bed, at home, surrounded by loving friends and families? How do I name the transcendent that makes bearable the possibility that I could die violently at dinner in a cafe on a Paris vacation?

I tremble at the question I am asking.....

I know that the easy answers, God and Country, are not really transcendent but brand-names by which I am to be seduced and dragged backwards. I know that there is a God beyond the God conventional preachers talk about, but that seems awfully theoretical to me, except as seen in the humanity beyond the humanity that we see.

I look to humanity's urges toward love, and justice, and solidarity. O, they can be so weak, and so easily misdirected, and thwarted. Really, about the one thing that you can say about them is that they are resilient. And that is enough for me.

I have a sometimes dim faith that no matter what happens to me, even the worst possible, there will be human beings who respond with a resilient love and desire for justice. If I die of a disease, there will be those who research a cure, there will be someone who comforts my family, there will someone who makes of my life an inspiration or a warning to benefit the young. If I die in a burst of random hatred, there will be those who lay a flower in the street to help heal a community, and there will be someone who seeks a dialogue across the battle lines, and there will be someone who raises a righteous protest.  My dim faith is in the humanity beyond the humanity I usually see, and it does suggest to me a God beyond the God our tribes usually claim.

I will give witness to the particular fact of my life story -- that my dim faith in the resilience of human love was formed in my faith tradition of Unitarian Universalism. I would not create a new Keep Calm and Carry On poster with a flaming chalice above the words. Far too narrow and sectarian.

But I would make one with a broken heart at the top, for broken hearts still carry on, and still love.

It is what lets me keep calm and carry on, unafraid.


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