Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Story of Our Deaths

a service given at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois

April 3, 2011


We live not just as physical bodies, but also as characters inside countless stories that motivate our actions and make meaning out of our lives: the stories of our careers and projects, the stories of our relationships, the stories of our days and months and years.

Perhaps the scariest thing about death is that it cuts those stories short. Our plots may have no climaxes. Our mysteries may come to no solutions. Our odysseys may never reach home. Facing those possibilities can undo the motivation that our stories give us and make our lives seem meaningless.

One way to maintain motivation and meaning is to tell death-denying stories about eternal life. Another is to live in the moment and put off thinking about death for as long as possible. But wise and skillful story-tellers have other options.

Opening Story: "The Tigers and the Strawberry"

A man was walking through a field when he saw a tiger watching him. The man began to run, and the tiger loped after him. He ran faster, and the tiger ran faster. Suddenly there was a cliff ahead, and the man tried to stop, but his heels skidded and he fell.

But on his way down he grabbed a vine, and amazingly, the vine was strong enough to hold him. And he thought: "Maybe I can figure out a way to climb to the bottom, and get away from the tiger." But then he looked down and saw a second tiger pacing back and forth at the bottom of the cliff, waiting for him.

So he wrapped his legs around the vine and hung on. "Maybe," he thought, "I can hang here until the tigers get bored and go away." But then, just out of his reach, he saw two mice come of out of a hole and begin gnawing on the base of the vine that held him up.

The man closed his eyes and began preparing himself for death. But when he opened his eyes again, he saw a luscious red strawberry growing out of the face of the cliff, hanging right next to him. He plucked the strawberry and ate it. It was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted.

Hymn: #12 "O Life That Maketh All Things New"

Responsive Reading: #558 "For Everything a Season"

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to throw away;

A time to tear, and a time to sew;

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time for war,

And a time for peace.


I want to introduce the readings by telling a story from my own life, a story you can think of as the motivation for this service.

Random Death. In high school I had a weekend job at the Herald-Whig. In those pre-computer days, one of my duties was to get typewritten pieces of paper from editors like Joe Conover and walk them back to the composing room, where they were set into metal type.

[Footnote: Quincy is my home town and the Herald-Whig is its local newspaper. Joe Conover attends this church and was in the room as I was speaking.]

I was a curious kid, so I usually managed to read the stories on the way, if they weren't too long.

One Saturday, when we were putting together the Sunday morning edition, I was given one sheet of paper, about three paragraphs. There had been a windstorm that day. Some middle-aged man -- his name meant nothing to me then and I don't remember it now -- had been in his yard when a large tree-branch blew down and killed him.

Now, that was not the first time I had ever thought about death. I grew up watching westerns and cop shows on TV. People died left and right on those shows, but they died inside plots that made sense. Their deaths were heroic or tragic or the result of their own foolishness. And I had known relatives to die after long illnesses, but those illnesses themselves were a kind of story in which death was a logical conclusion.

But this guy in his yard -- I knew nothing about him, but I was convinced that this branch blowing down was not the climax of any story he thought he was living. I was sure he must have been in the middle of a million other things, and then suddenly he wasn't.

That bothered me. It bothered me, so much that for days afterward I fantasized about suicide, as teen-agers often do. I think I wanted to reclaim control of the story of my death. Better to die at the climax of a tragedy of my own devising, I thought, than to risk dying randomly and meaninglessly.

But then -- as teen-agers also often do -- I got distracted by things I don't even remember now. My death tragedy was never performed, those unanswered questions moved to a back shelf of my mind, and life went on.

The readings represent a range of responses to those questions about death. The first is the traditional Christian story of salvation, from the Gospel of John. If you were at my mother's funeral, you heard this reading there:

The Christian Salvation Story: John 11: 21-25 and 14:2-3

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother [Lazarus] would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."

In my Father’s house are many rooms; ... I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

A second possible answer is in the Zen story I opened with. To me that story says that since there is no escaping death, we should accept it, and appreciate what this brief moment of life has to offer. Eat the strawberry.

But to William James things were not so simple.

from Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

[M]ankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature's portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation.

In other words: The strawberries may be sweet, but that just makes it worse.

Finally, there is this example, from Martin Luther King's last speech, given the night before he was assassinated.

from The Mountaintop Speech by Martin Luther King

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to ... talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man!


What Makes Humans Special? There is something special about human beings, something that makes us different from the other animals.

It's not our bodies, which need to eat and sleep like any other animal.

It's not our basic drives. Like other animals we are driven to run from predators, to attract mates, to protect our offspring, and to compete to be alpha dog.

Even our emotions seem similar to the other mammals. Like us, they form attachments. Some signal and communicate with each other. Some primates can even be taught to arrange symbols to make rudimentary sentences.

It can be hard to put your finger on what makes us special. Some people say that we have an immortal soul. Some say human reason is a special spark of divinity. Some people imagine us as the pinnacle of evolution.

This morning I'm not going to deny any of that. But when I look at humanity and ask what sets us apart, I see something much simpler: We are story-tellers. We imagine situations that are different from what is happening here and now. We populate those situations with characters, and then let imaginary time roll forward in plots about what would happen or could happen.

I don't think any other animal does that. And if one did, then I think we'd have to see that animal as special in the same way. If someday it turns out that chickens have been clucking out their life stories, and pigs have been grunting about their plans for the summer, then I think you'll see vegetarianism become much more popular.

The Importance of Stories. We often think of stories just as entertainment, as movies or TV shows or novels. But stories are how we came to dominate this planet. Through stories, we live on time scales much bigger than the present moment. We gather wood in the day for a fire we won't need until night. We plant in the spring because the end of that story is the reaping in the fall.

Because we tell stories, the future seems real to us. Everything we do is in the context of time.

Somewhere tonight a high school student is going to study, not because that is the most exciting activity she can imagine, but because she is already living in the story where she passes tomorrow's test, and she's already living in the story where she gets a good grade at the end of the term, and goes to college, and has a career she can take pride in, and someday has the financial security to give good things to her own children.

Everything we do is part of a story. It's part of many stories. We get out of a warm bed when the alarm goes off, because we are characters in stories that we want to bring to a successful conclusion. Those characters have motivation, and to the extent that we believe in our stories, we have motivation too.

Sometimes, though, we stop believing in our stories. Sometimes the whole future -- the test, the grade, the college, the career, the children -- starts to sound like a ridiculous fantasy. None of it's real. None of it is actually going to happen, or come out the way I want it to, so why shouldn't I keep playing this game or watching this show or texting my friends?

In order to have motivation that lasts longer than a few minutes, you need to be able to tell stories that you can believe about a character that you want to be. If you can really do that, then your life rocks. You bounce out of bed in the morning so that you can be that character and live that story.

But if not, if the stories you are living aren't believable or aren't appealing, then the best you can hope for is to lose yourself in the moment. Eat, drink and be merry and try not to think about where this is all going.

On the other hand, sometimes we believe our stories too much. We get so caught up in them that we forget they are stories and imagine that they are the world. If our stories aren't working for us any more, we believe that there is something wrong with the Universe or with the human condition. If I feel distant from the protagonist of my life story, then I say that the Universe is an alienating place. If the plot of my life does not engage me any more, then I complain that the Universe is supposed to have meaning in it, but it does not. I may think I need a God or a Savior to put meaning back into the Universe, when actually I need something much simpler: I need a story-teller.

Mission and sustenance: The temptation of Jesus. One of the ways people express humanity's illusive uniqueness is to quote Jesus: "Man does not live by bread alone."

Let's talk about the story that comes from. According to Matthew, Jesus has just been baptized by John, and the spirit of God -- whatever that might be -- has come down and entered into him. But he hasn't done anything with it yet. He goes out into the desert on a vision quest, and after forty days the vision quest is starting to work, because he sees the Devil.

And the Devil says, "You want to know what it means to have the Spirit of God in you? It means you don't have to be hungry like this. You can just command those stones to be bread."

And Jesus says, "Man does not live by bread alone." Which I think means: "I didn't come out here for bread. They had bread in Galilee. They've got bread in Jerusalem. If I wanted bread, I would have stayed where I was."

And so the Devil tries again to appeal to Jesus' animal drives. He says, "You don't have to be afraid of anything." And then he says, "You can be Alpha Dog of the whole world."

And Jesus says no, that he's not looking for any of that. He's looking for "words from the mouth of God".

What could that possibly mean? I think he's out there in the desert looking for a mission, looking for a way to tell the story of his life that will make sense out of this strange thing he feels inside himself that Matthew calls "the Spirit of God." And he wants that story to ring so true that no matter what he has to do and what he has to suffer, he will never doubt it.

He wants words from the mouth of God.

The Devil can't give him that, so he goes away and the angels come. We aren't told what the angels say. But after that Jesus does have a mission, and it stays with him all the way to his death. As he breathes his last, he says, "It is complete."

And that brings us to the subject of death.

Death as a Plot Hole. The unpredictability of death throws a wrench into all our personal stories. The story of your life might end for no reason that has anything to do with the plot. A tree branch blows down on you and you're dead. It happens.

The unpredictability of your death creates a plot hole in the story you are telling about your life. And as any story-teller knows, the effects of a plot hole tend to ripple backwards in time. If you don't know where your story is supposed to end up, then you don't know what should happen just before that, and just before that, and so on.

A plot hole is like a loose end in a tapestry. If you tug on that end, the tapestry can start to unravel. Similarly, if you can't stop yourself from tugging on the loose end in the story of your life, all your motivation can unravel, all the way back to the present. If you can't stop thinking about your death, and you can't figure out how to tie off that loose end, you can end up like the people William James imagined living on the ice. What does anything matter, when the ice is melting and we are all going to die? The strawberry of life may taste as sweet as ever, but so what? That just makes it worse.

When your stories unravel like that, they start to work against you. Instead of motivating you, they demotivate you. Instead of adding meaning to the tedious periods of your life, they subtract meaning from moments that otherwise would be satisfying and enjoyable. It may be a bright spring day, but what is the point of noticing? The sunshine, the flowering trees -- they don't change anything. We're still all going to die.

Eternity vs. this moment. So how can you tie that thread off? How can you keep the plot hole of your death from unraveling the story of your life?

The readings provide some suggestions. In the Christian salvation story, death isn't a problem because it isn't really going to happen. Your stories will just get interrupted, their conclusions delayed, but ultimately they will continue in a place where they can't help but reach a happy ending. Your relationships will continue in a place of perfect love, your enemies will be called to account in a place of perfect justice, and all your questions will be answered.

Who can deny that that is a wonderful story? And if you can believe it, whole-heartedly, with confidence that it will not start to ring hollow as the prospect of your death approaches, then God bless you. I mean that. Don't let anything I say disturb you in the least.

But St. Paul was right: Faith like that is a gift of God, not something we can achieve by trying. If you can't believe the salvation story, then you can't. No amount of telling and retelling is going to help. The people living on the ice could all tell and retell a story that said the ice is not melting. But that would just make their lives harder. When they were together they would put on a happy face and tell a happy story, but inside, each of them would be alone with his dread.

The strawberry story points in the opposite direction. Are we all doomed in the future? Then accept it, and don't live for the future. Live for now. Savor this moment, and when death comes, it comes.

Collective stories. It's easy to imagine that those are the only choices: Deny death by believing in eternal life, or don't look into the future at all and live in the moment. But we know they aren't the only choices, because history gives us other examples. The ancient Greeks and Hebrews did not make either choice. They clearly did look into the future -- otherwise they couldn't possibly have achieved everything they did -- but for centuries neither had any notion of personal salvation. Neither the Greek afterlife in Hades nor the Hebrew one in Sheol were anything to look forward to.

In The Odyssey, the ghost of Achilles tells Odysseus: "Say not a word in death's favor; I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man's house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead."

And Ecclesiastes agrees: "even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten."

So how did ancient peoples motivate themselves? Without any pleasant notion of eternal life, how did they plan for the future without seeing all their stories unravelled by death?

The answer turns out to be fairly simple. Although ancient peoples certainly were individuals and had individual stories and motives, compared to us they lived collective lives. The bulk of the stories that motivated them day-to-day were collective stories -- stories of planting and harvest in the country, and the annual cycle of festivals in the city. Where a 21st century person wakes up and asks "What am I doing today?" they were more likely to ask "What are we doing today?"

You can see a modern account of this mindset in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Levin, the aristocratic character who most resembles Tolstoy himself, can't understand why the peasants resist his efforts to modernize agriculture, no matter how attractive and profitable he tries to make it for them. Eventually, he spends several days working side-by-side with them and comes to understand that the peasants are not motivated as much by the individual story of profit and loss, as by the collective story of the people and the land.

Tolstoy does not tell us how Levin's peasants view death, but it's not hard to imagine. If the story that motivates me day-to-day is a collective story, then the prospect of my death has no effect on it. There is a time to plant and a time to reap, a time to tear and a time to sew, a time to break down and a time to build up -- and ultimately a time to live and a time to die.

If the meaning of all that was never in me or in my personal story. If it is what my people do, then my death will not undo it.

The Mountaintop. And finally, that brings us to Martin Luther King. On the eve of his death, the story that is motivating Dr. King is a collective story. It's the story of justice for his people and justice for the world. He knows that he is playing an important part in that story, and he knows that the story will go on whether he lives or not. "I may not get there with you," he says, "but we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."

"Like anybody," he says, "I would like to live. But [if I have to die] I don't mind."

Mindful present, collective future. Now, I realize that none of the examples I've mentioned is a perfect fit for an ordinary American in the 21st century.

Obviously, we can't all expect to be Jesus or Martin Luther King.

And while the increased individuality of the 21st century has its costs, it has benefits too. I doubt that many of us would want to recreate the collective mindset of a Russian peasant or an ancient Hebrew or Greek.

The timeless mindset of a healthy animal, always living in the moment -- that also has its charms. But the advantages we get from having a vision of the future, and the satisfaction that comes from finding your role in the larger sweep of history -- that would be a lot to give up.

But if none of the examples provides a perfect model, I still think we can cobble something together.

The strawberry story contains one piece of the truth. Personal life is not the kind of thing you can enjoy in the abstract; you have to enjoy it in a time and a place. And if not here and now, then where and when?

So to the extent that you are looking for personal satisfaction in life, you'd better grab it while you can. Feel the sunlight, taste your food, see the beauty, enjoy your friends, love your loved ones. If life will not seem complete until you see the Grand Canyon, then go see it. See it now. Don't wait until your eyes are failing and your knees won't let you hike. Eat the strawberry.

But that's not enough, I think. We still need the kind of meaning in our lives that can only come from stories that play out over time.

And so the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, the Russian peasants, and Martin Luther King give us another piece. When you do look to the future for your motivation, recognize that the further into the future a story goes, the more likely it is you will be dead before the end of it. So: the further into the future a story goes, the more collective it needs to be. Your long-term stories need to be able to contain your death; they should go on and not be interrupted when you die. Inside those collective stories, you need to find a personal role that is believable and motivating.

And that implies something that sounds paradoxical: For purely selfish reasons, you need to reach beyond yourself. You need to be part of something bigger, something whose story will go on after you die: a family, a community, a profession, this country, the human race, the web of all life.

And that connection to the larger whole can't just be theoretical. It won't motivate you, it won't get you out of bed in the morning unless you feel it and believe it in your heart and soul.

So that's the full package: Learn to take personal satisfaction in the moment, to live with a mindfulness that does not send the baggage of regret into the future. And simultaneously, learn to care deeply about something that will outlive you. Find a role you want to play in a story that will not end when you die.

It's a tall order. But if you can do it, there's a prize. You too may be able to contemplate your death and say, "Like anyone I would like to live, but I don't mind. I may die tomorrow, but I am happy today. I am not worried about anything. I am not fearing any man."

Closing Hymn: #114 "Forward Through the Ages"

Closing Story

President Kennedy used to tell this story: An old man and his young gardener were laying out plans for the trees they would plant in the coming year. But the gardener objected to one tree the old man suggested, pointing out that the species grows so slowly that it would not reach maturity for a hundred years. "Oh my," said the old man. "I had no idea. In that case, we'd better plant it today."


Cantahamster said...

I'm facing a job/career change these days, and your words are indeed food for thought. Thank you kindly.

Nancy said...

Such insight, such clarity, such wise counsel Doug. Thank you for investing the energy required of you to share with your story telling - writing, your life enhancing messages based always on extensive study and thought.