On March 2, I had ashes smudged on my forehead and heard the words “remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Being confronted with my mortality was not something new for me.
One of the many times I faced the inevitability of my eventual dying happened in 1997 as I lay on an examination table going through an EMG (electromyography), a test used to discover if I had fasciculations in my legs, the signature sign that I had ALS.
If fasciculations were discovered, it would mean that I would probably die within two years. The test came out negative, revealing that I was not going to die soon, at least not from ALS, but it did get my attention.
Ashes to ashes.
A second time happened in 2013. Melanie and I were driving 55 miles an hour when a van pulled across the highway right in front of us. Melanie fractured three fingers, her wrist and her collarbone. I wound up with a broken heel. In the second before the airbag deployed, I thought, “Is this it?”
Ashes to ashes.
The median age for American males to die is 77. I’m 74.
Ashes to ashes.
A funny thing about facing unpleasant truths about myself is that I can know a truth in my head as an abstraction but have trouble getting it from my head to my gut, to my soul as an existential reality.
I think Earnest Becker is right when he declares in The Denial of Death that Americans, myself included, spend a lot of energy denying that they are going to die.
Once when I was a pastor, I visited a man in the hospital who said to me, “I know that I’m dying,” and then added, “but don’t tell my wife.”
After giving him communion, I left his room and when I bumped into his wife in the hallway. She took me aside and said, “You know, my husband is dying, but don’t tell him that.”
I don’t want to live that way. Pretending. Avoiding.
Here’s an example of one of the benefits of looking death straight in the eye. As a pastor I had the privilege of being around folks who are in the process of actively dying. One named Kathe told me of a dream she had in which death came to her as a skeleton holding a scythe — the grim reaper himself — and motioned to her with a bony finger to come with him. To which she responded, “No. I’m not ready.”
“And you know,” she added, “he looked kind of sad as he turned and walked away.”
It was like death was one of her next-door neighbors with whom she had become so familiar that although she didn’t like him, he had lost his ability to frighten her.
Karen Speerstra and Herbert Anderson co-authored a book titled The Divine Art of Dying: How to Live Well While Dying.
“A turn toward death,” they contend, “is a decision to choose life, to live as fully as possible until the end, and to be an actor in living while dying.”
“Teach us to number our days,” prays the psalmist, “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
What Kathe modeled for me was not an obsession with dying but a familiarity with its reality which liberated her from the fear of it.
Another benefit of embracing the reality of my mortality is not focusing on death but rather on my own limitations as a human being.
From infancy on,” wrote John Keller, we have within us three delusional assumptions:
1. I am in control or ought to be in control of all that has to do with my life
2. I am at the center of the universe
3. Everything and everyone ought to be spinning around me so I can have what I want and life will be the way I want it to be
And Keller adds, “These are infantile, to be sure, but they are common human assumptions.”
In that regard, I can’t get the picture of the relationship Anthony Fauci had with Donald Trump. Dr. Fauci, it seemed to me, was very aware of his mortality, of his own limitations. That’s why he subjected himself to the discipline of science. He did not trust his own intuitions by themselves but subjected his hunches to the test of empirical evidence.
His boss, in contrast, never seemed to have gone to an Ash Wednesday service, if you know what I mean. He was like Archie Bunker. Archie’s wife Edith once said to him, “Archie, you have never said that you were sorry about anything,” to which Archie replied, “if I ever do something wrong, I will say I’m sorry.”
I’ve had a history of Alcoholics Anonymous on my bookshelf for 30 years. Its title is Not God.
Atul Gawande wrote Being Mortal, in which his first sentence is, “I learned a lot of things in medical school, but mortality wasn’t one of them.”
“The shock to me,” he confessed after being in his medical practice for a while, “was seeing medicine not pull people through. I knew theoretically that my patients could die, of course, but every actual instance seemed like a violation, as if the rules I thought we were playing by were broken. I don’t know what game I thought this was, but in it we always won.”
We’re in the season of Lent. Whether you are religious or not, remembering that you are dust and to dust you will return might, perhaps counterintuitively, help you live with less fear and more wisdom.