At some time around the age of eight, I had what I think of now as a crisis of the spirit, and I still have no real context, explanation, or even conclusion for it, only its description. I was helping my mother carry groceries into the house. I was in the hallway with bags in my arms, and I thought to myself (in some eight-year-old-child way) I’m going to let myself completely conceive of death. I’ve never been able to—or let myself —get back to what I thought that day in the hallway, except that I do know that the death I contemplated was an ending, a snuffing out. It scared me, so deeply that I spent some next weeks having to either be saying the word No out loud every moment I was awake, or I had to keep reading; it was then I learned the habit I still have today, of keeping a finger behind the oncoming page so that turning it wouldn’t break the flow of the text, create a blank spot where a fearful thought might break through. Needless to say, my parents were concerned about their child walking around saying, “No. No. No,” over and over and over again. Did I say it had to be out loud? Whatever it was I saw in that moment was so frightening to me I could not even tell my parents what was going on, because then I would have to think about it. So I made up a reoccurring nightmare about the Wizard of Oz, and they sent me to a child psychologist, who I lied to as well. I truly don’t know how I came to a place of peace with this, or if I ever admitted it to any adults at the time, but I do feel like it gave me a different relationship with Death than what most people had at that age.
–From an early draft of my own application for Certified Pastoral Education
This posting could just be an ongoing list of the fears I manifest as I move forward in this life transition, because the fears seem to be many, varied, and a little phantasmagorical, but with certain lodestones that can act as markers. What’s interesting as I write here about fear, and when I write about death, it feels like they have some things in common.
Here is a list of some fears, au courant:
- That writing about the fear of death feels self evident, a tautology. But what draws me to this work is that I can imagine a context where this is not so, and the idea of breaking through that assumption in myself and others is exciting.
- Of proclaiming a transition in my professional path, then not succeeding. This one just seems to be the uncertainty of the age, while tinted with the metaphysical–because of the topic, and because it’s me. We will all have seven careers supposedly, many of us are in debt for our first educations (I am), we are all “experts” in our current field, and if we’re not, we have to pretend we are. And if we’re experts, why are we changing our field? And then how can we be experts if we’re just starting out? Maybe we will all have seven careers, maybe we won’t, but how many successes will we have? So a fear of being a beginner is built into this as well as a fear of failure.
- That, in a world where so much repair is needed, focusing on a spiritual path is lacks seriousness. It won’t make me a lot of money, and it won’t house the homeless, so what good is it? I’ve considered a career change for a lot of years, and some of the paths I’ve considered have been religious/spiritual–a rabbi, a cantor, starting a nonprofit promoting beekeeping as a rite of passage. Besides the concerns about supporting my family and the debt that rabbinical training or starting a nonprofit would require just to start, I just worried that a spiritual life would be a retreat from reality. Now, I’ve got friends who put forward the idea that religion and G_D were only invented as a way to justify and explain death. That seems too simple to me, but I can’t deny that these things seem pretty universally entwined in human psyches. But because of this, and because death is a bedrock reality (as someone who grew up surrounded by radical relativists, I actually take a lot of comfort in this), I feel like I’m on solid ground learning to help people find a spiritual context for their mortality, and that this could actually provide some real solace and healing in the world.
- That I’m wasting my time, and that of my family. I am 50, and I am mortal. This one of course ties back to Fears #1, #2, and #3, and probably #5. When I first started training as a hospice volunteer, we met in a room that had the famous quote from Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”on the wall:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
So what if this is a dead end, too hard, doesn’t pay enough, frightens people in social situations? What if this is betting on the wrong horse here in my sixth or seventh career? Again I say: I am 50, and I am mortal. Again I say: What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
5. That I’m going to die, and there will be pain/sadness/disappointment/dissolution of ego involved. I expect that some of these will be there at my death, but my hope and my practice here are focused on these things being outweighed by curiosity, gratitude, and love.