Death, it is said, is 100 percent fatal: all of us will suffer and die from it. These days, it is in the news like no other. November is our nervous laugh about death. Like falling on a banana peel in front of a crowd and saying “I did that on purpose.” This ghoulish costume? Yeah, death does not scare me, hahaha!
What is especially distressing about death news these days is that we are losing the old and aging among us. And that we cannot go through the rituals of death and dying with our elders.
“We are the only creatures in this world who ceremoniously bury their dead, who speak words over bodies, over our friends and loved ones, and take them all the way to the grave. Why does death never cease to seem unnatural even despite the worldview we bring to the funeral? What is it about this spirit that will not stop, that refuses to be reconciled to loss and simply gives death the last word? What is it that makes us cry out to someplace or someone beyond the self?” writes Naomi Zacharias in “A Slice of Infinity.”
Paul Pruyser, a Dutch-American clinical psychologist at the Menninger Clinic in Kansas, studied the psychology of religion and had a rather depressing view of life, aging and death, James E. Loder in his book “The Logic of the Spirit” puts a more triumphant, death-defying perspective on Pruyser’s view which makes more logical sense and can be a comfort to many of us in these difficult times.
Pruyser’s image of aging is a Victorian mantelpiece with two empty vases sitting on top, and a ticking clock between the vases. The left vase represents a child, lacking self-sufficiency in a complex world, dependent on others for survival. As the clock winds down, we as human beings move toward the other vase, the aging vase. We begin to die the moment we are born. We become helpless like a child, with decreasing capacities to survive, as we age and finally die.
But this depression image is not the whole picture: there are positive outcomes to aging, writes Loder. Old age can bring despair, yes, but it can also bring integrity, comradeship and an appreciation of older people, especially one’s parents. Integrity is about the transformation of the ego, from self love to an acceptance of less narcissistic rewards. We need less ego stroking from others. We can stop trying to prove ourselves, relax our defenses. It can lead to a simplification of life by giving away our possessions to help others and thriving with just the essentials.
Comradeship means an appreciation of the human struggles of others. We can accept the mistakes we made and realize how they worked out for the best. “Living in the present without an anxious future is a privilege of the aged,” Loder wrote.
At the same time, we can identify with the idealism of young people. We do not need to compete with them. And young people realize this. Older people are the best companions and teachers of the young. Studies confirm folklore: young people of college age remember the stories told to them by their grandparents better than stories told by middle aged adults or peers.
Aging does draw us near death’s door. “A second aspect of integrity is comradeship with distant times; a sense of cosmic order inwardly felt,” wrote Loder.
Loder told the story of an aunt who was in a coma. When she came out of it, she was very upset, ticked off for having been brought back. She spoke of having been in a beautiful place, meeting the Lord, who told her she needed to go one step further and return to life.
Life-after-life experiences, like Loder’s aunt’s, were studied by Carol Zaleski in “Other World Journeys.” She compared 6th century near death experiences recorded by Gregory the Great with contemporary near-death experiences. Among the parallels: a hovering, out of body, experience, a “light” guide, a message for the need for spiritual instruction, a life review, a beautiful paradise, a return to life, a physical and spiritual change upon return to life, and a “goad to transformation.”
Loder concludes that we are neurologically designed for these experiences. That there is a deep human need for “orientation” or to be positioned to a cosmic order. A reaching out for the transcendent, if you will. Like the human mind and spirit longing to go home.
The problem is to pit these experiences against science, he said, dismissing it simply as cultural shaping. But both religious imagination and discovery in science are expressions of one and the same mind.
The great chemist Freidrich Kekule was sitting in front of a fire in 1865 when he had a vision of snakes whirling in a great circle and, “as if by a flash of lightning,” saw the structure of benzene molecules. (There are many examples of the use of imagination in many scientific discoveries.) Same imagination, same mind, same brain. “We are so created and so deeply embedded at a physical level that we are neurologically capable of producing visions toward coherence in the universe.”
The apostle Paul had a life-after-life experience “taken up to the third heaven, hearing things no man could utter, whether in the body or out of the body he could not say.” It was a disembodied experience. But his encounters with the resurrected Christ, with the transformed physical body of Christ on Damascus, was what transformed his nature. “When humans encountered Christ in the flesh there is a transformation, a conflict-resolving presence that takes the command of natural order.” Encounters with the risen Christ did not only make life better. It made life different.
Death and aging have to come. The false and extraneous will be stripped away. What is left behind will be transformed not by anger but by love. We can trust and submit to Him who put death to death. Nailed its sting to the cross. Only then can we look death and aging in the face and in an act of defiance, put flowers on the empty vases in Pruyser’s Victorian mantle.
Jeni Ann Flores is an educator, blogger, and freelance writer. You may read more of her writing at https://teacherseditionflores.blogspot.com/. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Death and aging have to come. The false and extraneous will be stripped away. What is left behind will be transformed not by anger but by love