“If Christian’s have faith they will go to heaven when they die, then should they not be afraid of death? The question was posed by the host of one of my favorite podcasts. It’s both simple and complex answers began churning around in my mind.
I certainly cannot speak for anyone else, but I understand aspects of my own relationship to the inescapable reality of my own mortality. Death is a subject I have spent years contemplating in my personal journey with depression, addiction and finding hope. Starting back in my youth I remember feeling profound anger at my own lack of control in existing at all.
My childhood often left me feeling guilty for being alive, and painfully aware of my own powerlessness at bringing myself into existence. I am sure it is my own frustration with this reality that led me to increasing levels of self destructive behavior in a largely unconscious hope that I could passively bring about the end of my forced presence on this earth.
I was raised with a belief in God that I made personal connection with at a young age. I remember ‘asking Jesus into my heart’ in bedtime prayer with my mom when I was no more than six or seven. Like many of my most important relationships, there were significant ups and downs in my relationship with God over the next several decades. From the shift of childhood innocence to the harsh realities of a world full of suffering, I wrestled deeply with pain and confusion at the situation I found myself in.
There are countless careless moments that could have easily led to my death. There are even more fantasies of suicide that comforted my broken soul in worst years of my depression. But the closest to death that I ever came was in the moment of my one serious suicide attempt and the interruption it took with police officers nearly shooting me in the same same moment I sought to end my own life.
My memories of that moment have brought often reflection as it represents so many of my core beliefs about my own mortality. It is easy to have ideas about what I think, or what I hope I would do in a given situation. But in my experience, there is often a difference between what I imagine I would do, and what actually happens when the situation is upon me.
In the moment when I found myself looking down the wrong end of a gun, it was as though all my own thoughts about what I was doing were erased from my mind. My senses narrowed, and I could no longer hear the auditory sounds around me. My mind left my body and I see the events as though I was a camera above the room rather than watching from inside my own body.
The primitive instincts of my reptilian brain took over as I watch myself slam the front door in the police officer’s face. The human instinct of survival took over and I sought to create distance between myself and the recognized threat. I would not explain the moment as fear, as my response did not seem connected to an emotion, but rather to an instinct. My mind was outside of my body and in the moment my feelings departed my body as I allowed my survival instincts to manage the situation.
There is no singular or satisfying reason that explains why I survived. My own need for grounding and contextualization has created the narrative that God saved me on that day. But I know for others that narrative is hurtful as it makes them wonder why God did not spare their loved one in an almost identical situation. I have read so many stories of people who were shot by the police in nearly identical situations as my own. Why did I live? It is a question that has brought me both guilt and a sense of meaning.
The fact I did survive fuels me with a profound sense of responsibility to try and give voice to the many who do not. I recognize that my survival was not about my own worth, or merit. I was not better and someone else worse. I do not have more value and someone less. It simply is. The context I give it is really more about me than it is about understanding any profound truth that someone else does not.
But at the same time, the context that I do find in my relationship with God does seem to change the relationship I have with the concept of death. On a day to day basis I do not fear my own mortality, and I do find joy in the thought that I will one day spend eternity with my savior. My peace no longer really even seems attached to whether or not that ultimately is true. I have accepted that in this life I will never understand what comes at its end, and my peace with death must really be in finding an overall peace with life.
I sit here today not facing a cancer diagnosis, or with a loved one who has been told they have only a short time to live. I sit here today with managed depression and no longer spend time romancing the idea of suicide. I feel peace with my own mortality and day to day I do not fear death.
In a year of covid and the fear I have see it bring, I have found myself both respecting its strength and not wanting to be casual with my life or others. But I am also not afraid of the pieces I cannot control. No matter how respectful I am of the disease, I know that it could attack either me or a loved one and I cannot control the ultimate outcome of any individual.
Would my feeling change if I were suddenly told I had only months to live? Would my feeling change if I found myself suddenly looking down the wrong end of another gun? I feel like it would be foolish to assume I know how I would respond in such a situation. My previous experience tells me of the complexity of the human instinct for survival. I do not think it fair to say what others should or should not feel around a concept as complex as death. It seems a subject we much each wrestle with individually, and often at multiple times in our lives.
Day to day I find hope and security in my relationship with God, and the grounding and direction that relationship brings. But I try not to force that experience upon others as I know my own security in faith had to be found in my own discovery of its place in my life. I answer the podcasters question with the answer my study of dialectics has brought me. No, I am not afraid of death, but I also do not know how I feel when I am about to die. I respect the individual process that each person must take in finding peace with these issues for themselves.