Embrace Our Mortality

We live in a death-defying culture and therefore the only thing that can unify human beings is the threat of death. We no longer seek genuinely to live but only the ways to keep ourselves alive. Yet all our pursuits of survival would inevitably lead us to death for that is what we are born for. The cross forming the halo of Christ in the Nativity icon gives a clarion call that we grow in the shadow of death and we are as good as dead from our birth. Thus St. Gregory writes; “Life is a contemplation of death.” (Or. 27.7)[1] Hence the earlier we embrace our mortality with nobility the sooner we would begin to live truly. 

One who fears death has not understood the meaning of life. One who is busy suspiring does not know the joy of breathing. I reminiscent the words of my Professor; “If you fear to die, you will die of fear.” This death-negating attitude is much more strongly rooted in our conscience than we imagine. Elizabeth Ross proffers a psychoanalytical perspective;

“It is inconceivable for our unconscious to imagine an actual ending of our own life here on earth, and if this life of ours has to end, the ending is always attributed to a malicious intervention from the outside by someone else. In simple terms, in our unconscious mind we can only be killed; it is inconceivable to die of a natural cause or old age.”[2]

We are so terrified to confront the reality of death that we sanitize its vocabulary with euphemisms, make the corpses look like they are alive, keep children at bay from attending funerals fearing they would be scarred by anxiety, and have protracted discussions not on how but on whether a terminally ill patient should be made aware of his/her impending death. The prowess of medical professionals are unfortunately assessed on the ability to prolong a person’s life. What is further sad is that as soon as people become sick they are relegated into passive objects contingent upon the decisions of others. The personhood of the patient is sabotaged. Hence Elizabeth Ross further expatiates;

“When a patient is severely ill, he is often treated like a person with no opinion. It is often someone else who makes the decision if and when and where a patient should be hospitalized. It would take so little to remember that the sick person too has feelings, has wishes and opinions, and has – most important of all – the right to be heard.”[3]

The apocalypse of this pandemic has made the transience of life all the more apparent. We are coerced to confront our mortality regardless of our interest. At the same time the slickness of our socio-economic systems – that valorize human worth on the ground of productivity – has been exposed. These vicious systems have always reduced life exclusively to biological functioning denuding its narrative. Byung – Chul Han notes;

“The capitalist economy absolutizes survival. It is not concerned with the good life. It is sustained by the illusion that more capital produces more life, which means a greater capacity for living. The rigid, rigorous separation between life and death casts a spell of ghostly stiffness over life itself. Concern about living the good life yields to the hysteria of surviving. The reduction of life to biological, vital processes makes life itself bare and strips it of all narrativity. It takes livingness from life, which is much more complex than vitality and health. The mania for health emerges when life has become as flat as a coin and stripped of all narrative content, all value.”[4]  

In no way do I intend to either offend the medical advancements we have made over the years or to demean the selfless sacrifices our medical professionals make to keep the population healthy. Their services should not only be graciously acknowledged but also greatly appreciated. As Zizek observes;

“When a medical worker gets deadly tired from working overtime, when a caregiver is exhausted by a demanding charge, they are tired in a way that is different from the exhaustion of those driven by obsessive career moves. Their tiredness is worthwhile.”[5]

What I desire to express is that the paranoid of death should not serve a fecund ground of exploitation. This is only possible if we embrace our mortality as a reality just as our nativity. Every sunset allegorically conveys this to us and thus we pray each Compline; “Lord, grant us to know and to consider that the evening which has called us to rest and refreshment from labour is a figure of the end of this present life.”

Living is an art of dying and this is what St. Paul does; he dies daily (1 Cor. 15:31). This is what each one of us is called to do as well. Through Christ, having been redeemed from the “fear of death” (Heb. 2:15), the question that one ought to ask is not, “how may I evade death?” rather “how should I die.” This is what gives meaning to life and this is what we learn from our saints who yearned to die, to live. As St. Ignatius writes; “Do not hinder me from living, do not wish that I should die…Allow me to receive the pure light. When I have arrived there I will be human.” (Letter to Romans 6.2).[6] John Behr elaborates;

“By dying, as a human being, Christ has shown us what it is to be truly divine: Lordship manifest in service, strength in weakness, wisdom in folly. If he had shown us what it is to be divine in any other way (acting, for instance, as a superhuman god), we could have had no share in him and his work. The fact is that we are all going to die, whether we like it or not. The only question is how we are going to die? Clinging to all that we think is ours, our own life and possessions, our own status or merit? Or following him on his path to Golgotha, laying down our life in love for him and our neighbours? Living, yet still dying, or dying to live.”[7]

In Christ

Dayroyo Fr. Basil

[1] St. Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ, Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham trans. (Crestwood: SVS Press, 2002), 30.

[2] Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: Scribner, 2003), 15.

[3] Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying, 20.

[4] Byung – Chul Han, The Burnout Society, Erik Butler trans. (California: Stanford University Press, 2015), 50.

[5] Slavoj Zizek, Pandemic: COVID-19 Shakes the World (New York: OR Books, 2020), 24.

[6] St Ignatius, The Letters, Alistair Stewart trans. (Crestwood: SVS Press, 2013), 71.

[7] John Behr, Behold: Dying We Live (Crestwood: SVS Press, 2008), 2.

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