By Matt Steel
14 May 2017
The fear of death haunts and hunts us, and to cope with it we hunt time and haunt each other. We track time, dissect it, box it in and bind it with frivolous tags, arbitrary demands and imaginary urgencies. We gorge ourselves on the anxieties of other people. Our rooms and bodies are adorned with clocks that forever blink, tick, buzz. We wear fear on our wrists. We borrow money to buy gold-chased mementos of fear. In our vanity, we call them heirlooms and so the fears of one parent pass down to the seventh generation. The fear of death ejects us from sleep every morning. We measure the movement of shadows, eyes fixed on the ground, oblivious to the heavens.
In her razor-sharp essay Humanism, Marilynne Robinson says we’ve become “less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind, more engrossed in the drama of staying ahead of whatever it is we think is pursuing us. … The spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency, many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own.”
The little boy in The Sixth Sense saw dead people; I see fear. It hasn’t always been this way for me, but in 2012 I went through a season of career burnout, and the way out required a confrontation with my own deep-seated fears. I now sense fear in crowds. I hear it saturating the newscaster’s voice and twisting the politician’s rhetoric. I feel it gripping my heart when my wellbeing is threatened. I see it cutting you off from love. Fear of other people. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of losing face. Fear of discomfort. Fear of entrapment in pain. Fear of missing out. Fear of weakness. Fear of facing ourselves, alone and naked in quiet with no distractions, no followers, no up-votes, no half-hearted flatteries and no masks to hide our warts and wrinkles. Fear of soul: What am I? Who is this inner witness? What have I done to myself? Where am I going? What beauty have I scorned? What desire have I snuffed out?
Quick! Avoid the questions, stamp them out before they spread and singe them at the root. Pick up the phone, scroll the feed, check the channels, monitor the news, devour the likes and views, numb the pain, check the time, rush out the door as if a host of demons were at your heels, hang on the second hand as it marches smoothly, mechanically, breathlessly, inexorably toward death, toward the unknown, toward the yawning jaws of oblivion.
Eternity is the twisting, looping channel through which love pours from this life into the next. Neuroscientists would have us believe we are nothing more than networks of electrical and chemical impulses. There is no spirit, they say, since their methods and machines can’t measure it. And when the transmission ends that’s all, folks. The light goes out and love goes with it.
Elsewhere in Humanism, Marilynne Robinson confronts neuroscience’s stiff-necked rejection of the nonphysical:
“It is absurd for scientists who insist on the category ‘physical,’ and who argue that outside this category nothing exists, to dismiss the reality of the self on the grounds that its vulnerabilities can be said to place it solidly within this category. How can so basic an error of logic survive and flourish? … On scrutiny the physical is as elusive as anything to which a name can be given. The physical as we have come to know it frays away into dark matter, antimatter, and by implication on beyond them and beyond our present powers of inference. But for these scientists it is a business of nuts and bolts, a mechanics of signals and receptors of which no more need be known.”
“Only the soul is ever claimed to be nonphysical, therefore immortal, therefore sacred and sanctifying as an aspect of human being. … It suffers injuries of a moral kind, when the self it is and is not lies or steals or murders, but it is untouched by the accidents that maim the self or kill it. Obviously this intuition – it is much richer and deeper than anything conveyed by the word “belief” – cannot be dispelled by proving the soul’s physicality, from which it is aloof by definition. And on these same grounds its nonphysicality is no proof of its nonexistence. This might seem a clever evasion of skepticism if the character of the soul were not established in remote antiquity, in many places and cultures, long before such a thing as science was brought to bear on the question.”
Our souls spread out, unhindered by the limits of entropy and personality. Our bodies house our spirits but don’t quite contain them. We emanate. The ultimate context of soul is eternity, for the eternal is everywhere and nowhere, unencumbered by mass and impervious to decay. Eternity is the space through which time shuffles and sprints. It’s immeasurably vast yet resolutely immaterial. Experience can’t pierce it; knowledge can’t plumb it; language can’t limn it. To even say eternity is vast implies limits and places that aren’t encompassed within it – and no such place exists. Eternity slips around the corner as soon as we spy it. It’s the genesis and final resting place of the wind; it’s the page upon which the concept of wind was sketched. Though it was and is to come, eternity manifests entirely in the now. Eternity is God’s forever home. He upholds and suffuses all of it, and if all creation bears his echo and imprint he is ever roaring loud as stars, plummeting and soaring beyond the speed of light, abiding still and silent as space, constantly working and ceaselessly resting. God the Son left his eternal home to enter our time and our pain, taking on flesh, living the perfect life we could not live, walking in constant contact with God the Father who remained seated in eternity. God the Spirit prays for us with groanings deeper than words. How does God pray to God? And – mystery of mysteries – we are told he is three persons yet one.
This is all rather alogical, as it should be. A perfectly scrutable god is no god at all, and I would be foolish to make any attempt at understanding these mysteries. Like a child who cannot grasp the mind of an adult until he becomes an adult, I can wonder but in the end, “i am that i am” must suffice. And yet, the God who lives within the unknowable nothingness of eternity invites us to know him by faith. Indeed, he is our only hope of freedom from death. In God and God alone, death itself dies.
Perhaps we don’t need to melt down all the clocks en masse. We certainly shouldn’t abandon our commitments, though we’d do well to avoid saying yes too often. After all, to be human is in large part to be with other humans. Alone, we’re incomplete. Punctuality is a mark of integrity and a sign of respect, and respect, as my dad says, is the better part of love. (I’m preaching to myself as much as anyone else.) We resist presence and bite our own tails. The prospects of slowing down, of self-reflection, of actually redeeming the hours and doing anything more than frittering away countless slices of eternity lead to frantic busyness and an antagonistic relationship with time. But it doesn’t need to be this way. Serenity becomes available when we slow down enough to ask ourselves why we’re compelled to traverse the worn ravines of our personalities, whether it really must be this way, and how we might improve the time we’ve been given. Peace cannot enter the busy mind. Release the questions, release your expectations, and answers will come when you need them. Welcome unknowing; nothing is missing. A mind can only hold so much, and reduction of input will enrich both your quality of thought and potency of action.
Today – just for today – I invite you to set down the phone and ignore those notifications. Allow yourself to miss out for once and bathe in the space you’ve suddenly freed. Allow your ego no room to swell from your mounting heap of likes and lols (or lack thereof!). This weekend, if you can, take off your watch, walk away from the clocks and get outside with no particular agenda. Notice the sun shining on you, sliding westward. Treasure what light you receive. Rest assured in the knowledge that you will die and there is nothing you can do about it. Rest, knowing that though you will surely die tomorrow or fifty years from now, your essence will endure. “But how could anyone possibly know this?” I hear someone saying. Well, millions, maybe billions of words have been spent over the ages on this topic, but for now I’ll say this: it has everything to do with origins. All children resemble their parents, and our warp and weft are traceable to God. We are made in his image, as he says and I believe experience shows. For example, the compulsion to create objects of beauty grows from love, not evolutionary impulse. No explanation for the creative spirit has been found by empirical means. Creativity rejects rules in favor of principles and patterns. Such is the nature of liberty, and God is liberty. Beauty is entirely unnecessary in the fight for survival, yet no one denies we need it like we need air. We’re driven to conceive, design, build and rebuild. We grow depressed when we consume more than we create. We know intuitively there is much more to existence just beyond the pale, sensate earth. And as God is everlasting and communal, and if he actually made us, then we, his unwitting and recalcitrant companions, are also made of eternal stuff. Like it or not, we are in it – whatever It is – for the inconceivably long haul.
The food you feed your soul and the time you kill today, right now, will heal or harm you beyond the limits of mortal life. Pay attention; it’s worth more than all of the money you will ever make.
It’s a winter morning and I wake in cool darkness. The cat slinks out from under the bed and leaps featherlight onto the table, her bell tinkling in time with the alarm. Sleep hangs on me like clumps of Spanish moss as I lumber into this new day, a day unremarkable to me for its accommodation of habit, a day wholly unique. This is the day that the lord has made. God the Father breathes outside of and through time – if he breathes at all. God the man – where does he breathe? From the dimension of glory, has his body of flesh felt the turning of some two thousand years? He said no one but the Father knows when the Son will return. He waits in perfect peace without knowing when he’ll return to claim his kingdom and gather his elect. He waits ages. Being God, he knows the nature of life both from within and without time. Being human, does he not feel the passage of moments? He waits in perfect patience, in sovereign unknowing though all the earth, all the stars and the yawning spaces between stars bellow and surge. Though he abides in serenity at the right hand of the Father, he intercedes for us wayward children. Our pain is his pain. When continents crack his bones ache; every eulogy renews his anguish; as the Psalmist says, “precious in his sight is the death of his saints.”
On crossing over, what sight will I see with eyes no longer fixed in the skull of an earthly body? Will I have any sense to register impressions? If so, on what brain will they be imprinted? Shriven of pain and shucked of ego, will I still be a man, a maker, a psyche? Who will greet me? Is heaven a place or a plane of consciousness? Do its inhabitants know where they dwell – do they care? Does my soul require a body for awareness, or will my unfettered spirit dissolve into a greater Soul? Will I be stored in some heavenly aquifer until drawn like well water and thrown gasping and spluttering in a resurrected body?
Pondering death and the next world, I feel both longing and dread. Longing to expand from glimpses of glory to its full unveiling and final undimming. Dread of ejection from time, from our beautiful and blighted home and the life I know. Both longing and dread at the prospect of immortality, of release from quaint illusions of space and pathetic attempts to measure quanta, make a mark, comprehend anything at all, hold eternity in a teacup, delay the onslaught of death.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds. It erases them and we learn nothing. How can I not protest? How can I not ask questions, though death obstructs the answers? Time chafes, and it’s running out. At the last, we’re left with nothing but memories. Even those are cropped by the lens of perception and made increasingly spurious by each recollection. Though we’re specks on a speck in an ocean of oceans, time constricts and constrains us. Our souls are too large for it. Time is a governor that was laid over the engine of spirit when the universe as we know it was made, and, though it binds us in this life, I believe time cannot touch us in the next. In the end, it can’t even contain a single person; and as Coleridge said, we are myriad myriads. Our frail bodies and small minds now gutter, now glimmer in the shadows. But we are made in the image of an omnipotent Creator. Though he made us in joy, he did not make us in jest. Our design is for glory. When we become free from bondage to time, when futility dies, when we see the soul of freedom face to face, our collective candescence will fill the multiverse.