In order to be at peace, it is necessary to find a sense of history – that you are both part of what has come before and part of what is yet to come. Being thus surrounded, you are not alone; and the sense of urgency that pervades the present is put in perspective. Do not frivolously use the time that is yours to spend. Cherish it, that each day may bring new growth, insight, and awareness. Use this growth not selfishly, but rather in service of what may be, in the future tide of time. Never allow a day to pass that did not add to what was understood before. Let each day be a stone in the path of growth. Do not rest until what was intended has been done. But remember – go as slowly as is necessary in order to sustain a steady pace; do not expend energy in waste. Finally, do not allow the illusory urgencies of the immediate to distract you from your vision of the eternal.
(Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, The Final Stage of Growth, 167)
Last month we lost a good friend unexpectedly. His death, just days after his 49th birthday caused me to confront my own mortality. His death also makes me think about that void in life that we leave as well as the legacies we leave behind. How will I be remembered? Did I make a difference while on earth? Have I served and given back enough?
We all think death has a specific order – generations pass in successive order, a parent should not outlive their child; but that is not reality. Death is a profound personal experience that is shared; it is also subconsciously active throughout our life, no matter how we try to avoid thinking about it. Schubert Ogden in The Reality of God states “it is this very awareness of our mortality that endow the moments of our life with vividness and intensity. In this sense, our who existence is, in Martin Heidegger’s phrase, a ‘being toward death’ (Sein zum Tode)” (224). Heidegger’s phrase seems to restate Freud’s view about the “death drive,” represents an inherent urge to return to a state of calm without danger, an inorganic or dead state, a place of safety like our mother’s womb where life originally emerged from.”
No matter how different cultures react or cope with death, common elements exist; a psychological and social need to adjust with loss or come to terms with the natural process of death. Halbwachs distinguishes physical death from social death. Physical death is biological, but social death deals with the “social significance” that remains of the person that is physically gone. This leads me to the point of legacy and how we are to be remembered.
Because this subject has been weighing on me lately, I began to read more on the theology of death and doctrine of God. While researching, I came across an article by Sallie McFague, “Falling in Love with God and the World: Some Reflections on the Doctrine of God.” She explores her own mortality through an ecological lens of God:
“Seventy-three years ago I was seven years old and experienced God for the first time. Coming home from school one day, I suddenly realized that some day I would not “be here” for Christmas, and even more shocking, I would not be here for my birthday. “
There was a time that we did not walk the earth, and there will be a time when our walk will end. This is a reality that no one can escape.
McFague describes herself as “contingent” – created by another, not on this earth forever, dependent on something else. Because so much of the written work about death is rooted in creation, “contingent” becomes a new concept that emerges in this theology, especially in connection with God. She further compared the experience like an awakening that occurs through the unconnected experiences of transcendence and immanence as though she was sleepwalking “in full stride” or “brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning.” Possibly a “conversion” experience?
Besides this notion of being contingent, I really liked McFague’s statement that:
“if we live within God now, then surely when we die we will simply live more fully in God….what we cherish now – the God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves here on earth – will be even closer when we die.” “Death is not to be feared nor is it the only time we meet God. God is the milieu of earthly existence and ‘heaven’ is here and now.” “My death will be a seamless transition to living more fully within God.”
Death is all around us. With each breath we take, we are one breath closer to death. Alfred North Whitehead speaks of this as “perpetual perishing.” Death is final. Ogden asks “can anyone really be comforted solely by the thought that (s)he will live on in the memories and appreciations of poor mortals no more sensitive than him (her) self? Is the final meaning of my life simply the ever-decreasing impact I make on the other (wo)men who come after me?” This for me speaks to legacy and mentoring – who have I touched, impacted, or inspired.
In Natalie Kertes Weaver’s book The Theology of Suffering and Death, she provides a spiritual inventory (106):
- Who have I been all this time?
- How have I used my gift of human life?
- What do I need to “clear up” or “let go of” in order to be more peaceful?
- What gives my life meaning?
- For what am I grateful?
- What have I learned of life and how well have I learned to love?
- What have I learned about tenderness, vulnerability, intimacy, and commitment?
- How am I handling my suffering?
- What will give me strength as I die? What is my relationship with this, which will give me strength as I die?
- If I remembered my breaths were numbered, what would be my relationship to this breath right now?
- Am I satisfied with my relationship with people close to me? If not, what might I be able to do to increase my satisfaction level with my relationships?
- Am I satisfied with my relationship to God/Higher Power/The Divine/my faith community, as I understand it? If not, what might I be able to do to increase my satisfaction with my relationship?
- Am I satisfied with my sense of self? If not what might I be able to do to increase my satisfaction with my own self?
- Have I asked others for help I might mend in improving these relationships?
- Have I forgiven others, myself, and God for the disappointments in my life so that I can life, and, when it is time, so that I can die freely and in peace?
McFague also states that we should rejoice “in the present moment” and learn “to appreciate the sacrament of the present moment, how every bit of creation mirrors and indeed ‘rings out’ that unique aspects of the divine that one is.”
Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently a Doctoral Student in the Department of Theology and Religionat Durham University. She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll Universityin Theology and Religious Studies, is a Member of Sigma Nu, performed post-graduate work in History focusing on Gender, Religion, and Sexuality at the University of Akron, and is an Adjunct Instructor in the Religious Studies Department at Ursuline College. Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://durham.academia.edu/MSFreyhauf. Michele can be followed on twitter at @msfreyhauf.