Last night I watched on television the movie Fearless, which I first saw in a movie theater some 14 years ago. In the film, Jeff Bridges plays a survivor of a plane crash who was deeply transformed in the moments before the crash. Having assumed that he was going to die, he lost his fear of death, becoming a heroic comforter of his fellow air travelers before the crash and a savior of lives after the crash. While the fearlessness he continued to experience afterwards was liberating for him, it also estranged him from his loved ones. His lack of fear coincided with an emotional deadness. In a way, he had ceased to be fully human.

I have had brief glimpses at the possibility of fearlessness about death. When I was much younger, I once dreamed that I was about to drown. In the dream, I struggled against the water for a while, but then I realized that it was a hopeless cause, and I just gave up. At the point of giving up, I suddenly felt liberated as I lost my attachment to living. It was like the attachment to life had been a kind of trap. I can remember this dream all these years later because it was so deeply real to me at the time, and I felt afterwards that I had learned something about how the instinct for survival can sometimes serve as a straitjacket. Of course, once I resumed my waking life, my survival instinct also resumed at full force. I had no desire to actually drown.

A few years ago, I collided with a car while I was riding my bike. I came out of the accident with some broken bones, but also with the knowledge that, had the timing of the collision been different, I would have died or at least been seriously maimed. The pain was excruciating the first few days after the accident, and you would think that such pain would have made me more skittish, more intent on pain-avoidance. But, in a way, for a while, I felt a tiny trace of liberation. Yes, the pain was terrible, but I had lived through a trauma, and I had found unknown resources to live through that pain. I felt a strange lack of fear of traffic--the opposite of what one might have expected. I remember more than once in the weeks that followed, standing on a curb as a car went by and thinking that it would not have been so difficult for me to have stepped right in front of that car. Of course, I didn't, but it wasn't because I was afraid of the consequences of stepping in front of a moving vehicle. It was a rational choice, rather than an instinctual one--I just didn't want to die.

I can only imagine what people in horrible situations undergo. Tortured political prisoners, for example, must experience unbelievable transformations of thinking about the meanings of their lives. And people who reach the ends of long lives, when their health fails, must certainly undergo a re-evaluation of their attachment to living. I am young enough and healthy enough to imagine that I have a long life ahead of me. But I could be wrong, of course; I could die tomorrow in a traffic accident, just as my mother did a few years ago.

It is easy in the modern world to delude ourselves about our mortality. We think that we can make ourselves safe and secure from the dangers of the world. Modern medicine will give us long lives, and if we are lucky we will find ourselves a nice safe neighborhood to live in where no one will, for example shoot at us. Some people, of course, don't have the luxury of being able to afford sheltering themselves off in a "safe" neighborhood, and may be more aware of their own mortality than others are. But I do think that the longer lifespans that the Western world enjoys has played right into the natural human tendency to live in denial about one's mortality. I know that, until a few years ago when my body started giving me some new health problems, that I had in quite a bit of denial about the inevitable decay that sets in as we get older. Death seemed far off in the future.

I sometimes wish I had that total fearlessness that the Jeff Bridges character experienced in that movie. His own fearlessness liberated him in a moment of crisis; it turned him into a hero during the plane crash. He was able to help other people--but the price he paid afterwards was that he stopped caring about himself, and became addicted to the fearlessness itself. He had lost a piece of his humanity. I wonder if that is really true--that part of what it means to be human, fully human, is to be afraid of our own mortality; and yet at the same time we so often sweep that fear under the rug by living in denial that we might die tomorrow.

Courage in the face of human mortality is something I have struggled with in much of my adult life. I want to know how to make my life meaningful during the short time that I have here on earth. I sometimes tell myself that if I really relinquished my fear of death, if I became truly aware of my own mortality, I would feel compelled to do the most I could to make the world a better place. I could not put my good deeds off until tomorrow, because there would be no tomorrow to do so.

Some people respond to their mortality by believing in life after death. I would like to believe that I will continue to exist in some way after I die, but I cannot be anything but an agnostic on that question. I just feel that I cannot possibly know what happens, if anything, on the other side. Yet even those who believe in life after death still must contend with their biological instinct for survival. The world we live in, the here and now, does matter to us.

For many Christians, this hope of life after death is tied to their faith in Jesus and their belief that he was resurrected from the dead. To me, though, the much more interesting thing about Jesus was not any resurrection that he might have undergone, but his courage in the face of his certain, painful, death. He was not the only person to give his life for what he believed in, of course. Yet another thing is clear; the earliest Gospel, Mark, suggested that he agonized over what was happening to him. Mark (and then Matthew) describes him, for example, as crying out to God on the cross before he dies. Later Gospels whitewashed this depiction of Jesus; this didn't fit into the evolving image of Jesus as fearless superhero. Luke depicts him as being calmer than Mark does, and John has him in complete control over the situation. The fully human Jesus became the fearless Jesus. More's the pity. We can derive more strength, I think, in emulating someone who faced certain death despite their misgivings and their fears. By transforming Jesus into a fearless wonder, they stripped him of his humanity.

And yet. There is something strangely appealing about fearlessness. There is a part of me that would like to be fearless in the face of death, to accept the shortness of human life and to face this shortness with dignity and passion, because I tell myself that this will inspire me to become the best at every moment that I can. Maybe that's a cop out, though. That is where God plays a role--by offering me and everyone else the guidance to how we can be the best we can be. And maybe that's the lesson that people should be deriving from Jesus--not that he calmly faced death like a divine superhero and then gave his followers eternal life, but rather that he faced that death with all-too-human agony and fear--and that it was still okay because he had lived his life up to that point by being fully the best that he could, as God asked him to do.


Ruth said...

What a magnificent piece of writing. (Have you ever read any Alain de Botton? He writes about philosophy in a stimulating, intelligent and accessible way - you might enjoy it).

The biggest trauma that I ever suffered was when I received a phone call one ordinary morning to say that my dear (young and, as far as we knew, healthy) father had died suddenly of a heart attack. Amidst the shock and the sadness and the pain and the plethora of other sensations that we call grief, was this sense that I was 'surviving through it' and that if I could survive through this I could survive through anything. I took some strength from that. In the short term, I was very brave and conquered one or two fears- I did things that I wouldn't normally have done. In the long term though, I've lost that, and I am now a more anxious person than I was before. Having learned, first hand, that someone can just die on you like that, I've become a little nervous of even minor illnesses! Which is a shame!

Mystical Seeker said...

Thanks, Ruth, for your comment, particularly the story of how you experienced the death of your father.

The death of my mother helped me realize in theory that we can all go at any moment. I think my reaction is different from yours, though. Instead of becoming more nervous, my reaction at a more gut level has just been one of denial. I go around through life mostly as if I will live a long time.

Ruth said...

Hi again.

Yours is a healthy state of mind; mine isn't! Having said that, I don't want to give the impression I'm a nervous wreck. It's just that if I get a mild headache, I fear that it might well be something terminal...! (And I have two children under the age of 5, which adds to my fear of not being here).

I've been thinking that we are very privileged to live in an age and in a society (Western Society) where we can aspire to make a difference in our life, rather than just getting by. I'll be (sharp intake of breath) 40 next year and I feel as if I'm really starting to get to know myself now, and learning my vocation. Not all that along ago, our life expectancy was about 40. I'd have been dead by now!

An amusing thought went through my mind after I'd read your post yesterday - I thought "I wish I could do something to make a difference. But I can't I'm too busy bringing up the children"!