“I am not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens,” said Woody Allen. Just last year, he also wrote a very funny piece for the New York Times about hypochondria. It’s so easy to make fun of hypochondria, and his description of the thought process behind it is spot on:
“What distinguishes my hysteria is that at the appearance of the mildest symptom, let’s say chapped lips, I instantly leap to the conclusion that the chapped lips indicate a brain tumor. Or maybe lung cancer. In one instance I thought it was Mad Cow.
“The point is, I am always certain I’ve come down with something life-threatening. It matters little that few people are ever found dead of chapped lips. Every minor ache or pain sends me to a doctor’s office in need of reassurance that my latest allergy will not require a heart transplant, or that I have misdiagnosed my hives and it’s not possible for a human being to contract elm blight.”
The panic we feel at the onset of strange symptoms is natural, of course, because we are given no assurance of safety in this massive, whirling world of unpredictable calamities. If someone else could get cancer from drinking the water, why couldn’t I? If someone else’s child could be lost to SIDS, why not my child? What guarantee are we given that the terrible news unfolding every day won’t have our names or the name of someone we love on the front cover tomorrow?
I think we can agree that hypochondria is another name for fear of death. Whether we approach the topic of death with crippling fear or foolish bravado, they are just two sides of the same coin. If we refuse to ever leave the ground in any kind of flying contraption or we’re always looking for the next chance to skydive, true fearlessness is far from most of us. I think even the most seasoned airline passenger clenches up (at least inwardly) when turbulence goes from sporadic to unrelenting. And it’s a rare person who smiles in the face of troubling reports from the hospital lab.
What would Woody do? “Talk about a story of it,” as our son would demand at the tender age of two. Our appetite for anecdote and memoir from others who have faced what we’re facing soars whenever we come too close to any kind of loss, real or threatened. We seek comfort in finding out what to expect, in knowing that we are not alone in this. Our desperate fear is really not of death but of the unknown. Most of us fear pain, but we fear helplessness and nothingness even more.
As a child, I used to lay awake at night paralyzed by the thought that one day, my loved ones and I would simply cease to be. My mother tried to comfort me by saying, “You have many, many years before you have to think about that.” But it didn’t matter how many long years I could afford to put off the thought; the reality remained. We were all going to die. It was unthinkable.
A person of faith has one trump card in all of this—the presence of God. The idea that an eternal soul dwells within us, that there is a life to come beyond what we can imagine here, that there is a purpose to each ounce of suffering even though we can’t understand it now . . . all of this is comforting, but only on a cerebral level at best. When we are bleeding or doubled over in pain, we just want to be rescued so we can go back to our regular lives.
Those of us who have lived beyond childhood have a long history of rescues, many of which we don’t realize we had—near misses and collision courses with disaster that were diverted before we ever saw them coming. We are not likely to remember even the rescues we did see, because we just wanted to get back to our regular lives. We remember instead the trauma, the terror, the deepening sadness of the times when we had a prolonged wait to get back to our regular lives.
But when we’re steeped in our regular lives, we are discontent. We want more meaning, more results, more rewards, more love, more power, more money, more stuff. Then along comes a tragedy or a setback and all we want is a return to our regular lives. Sometimes we even make promises: “If I can just get through this and live, I’ll never complain again about my marriage/job/appearance/finances/friends/etc.” Most of us renege on those promises as soon as we are safely restored to our less-than-perfect lives.
What is it we really want? We chafe at a safe existence because we want more excitement, then we cry out in desperation when our regular lives are threatened. We worry over every little lump and soreness, then as soon as we are healthy again, we kvetch about how we “could have done this” or “could have had that.”
In the Haftorah today, I read about Jeremiah’s complaint when God called him to be a prophet (hardly a boring career): “Ah Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak for I am a youth.” Reminds me of Moses in Exodus 4, when he says, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” They didn’t want to step up to a life of meaning, to their calling, if they could get away with just living their regular lives.
It’s possible that each brush with death, each encounter with tragedy, each real or imagined health scare, is like that moment by the burning bush. We have an opportunity to experience a faith that transcends our puny existence, to meet God in the midst of something that will certainly turn our lives upside down. Most of us are going to turn tail and run, no matter how much we believe that we love God and trust Him.
The good news is, one day we really will face death or tragedy, or both. And this time, there will be no running back to our regular lives to hide. When we open our hands and let go of all our stuff, all our attachments, we will finally be free to embrace what God has called us to without any more fear. It is unthinkable and unfathomable now, but I suspect it will be unbearably beautiful.