At the height of my recent health hysteria, I realized that I am no way, at all, whatsoever, prepared to deal with a bad outcome. I didn’t even want to pray for help, as though asking God for strength would somehow jinx things or give him the idea to put me through a final trial. I didn’t want to bring it up and remind him, in case he wasn’t paying attention.
I started worrying about my parents. I felt worse for them then for myself. When I did speak to God, I asked him, please don’t do this to my parents. They have nothing. But then immediately I reproach myself—lots of people lose the ones most dear to them in the whole world. Why should I be special? It’s not like there’s terminal illness scapegoats, as though those people over there get sick in order that it becomes preposterous and impossible for us to get sick. No, it could be any one of us, at any time. The chances may be remote but they are certainly not impossible.
My throat cramps when I imagine death approaching or the final moment. I was in a serious car accident about a year ago; a driver to our left blew through the red light and hit the driver’s side (I was the passenger). It’s terrifying how you can be going along and everything’s fine, and all of a sudden nothing is fine. Fine, and not fine. The dividing line between those two is thinner than a hair. Fine/not fine. There was nothing in that experience in between fine/not fine except a brief, painful pull. Fine./Not fine. It was months before the feeling wasn’t as sharp. Yet it remains.
Indeed, for a long time, my nightly ritual was to settle into bed, fluff and pat my pillows into place, reach over and turn out the light, and immediately begin worrying if I was going to die in my sleep, and wonder, if I happened to wake before the event, what does it feel like at that final second before everything goes black.
This was initially provoked by the accident but it certainly doesn’t allay my fears of terminal illness, only exacerbates them. Anything can happen at any time. No one is special or exempt. Everyone gets their close-call event sooner or later; it’s just that people like me, hypochondriacs who see a dire end concealed in a little cough, take the dread to a whole new level.
It came as a surprise to me that as a so-called devout Catholic, the beliefs I had professed before seemed to fail me. No, that’s not quite right–I failed them. I hadn’t fully internalized them. I look up at a crucifix, a spectacle of suffering and dying, yet I can’t apply the meaning of it to my own life and my own eventual demise. Maybe I don’t want to apply it and have to surrender what little illusion of control I believe I have. “Father, let this cup pass from me–yet not my will, but yours.” Prayer with worst track record ever.
It’s no big secret at all–no one wants to believe that it can happen to them. If we acknowledge at all in a serious way that we will die someday, it’s to reassure ourselves that we will die at ninety years old, in our sleep, after a long day of tennis and bridge, in full command of our mental capacities. But deep inside, secretly, illogically, we don’t believe we will die.
Yet, we believed in God when all these things were happening to other people. This one got sick, this one lost that one, etc; and we claimed we had faith and believed in God. But once it happens to us, all of a sudden it’s “How could God let this happen?” We didn’t really mind, at bottom, when it was happening to other people. That is to say, our faith isn’t as badly shaken when it happens to someone else. We reassure them that it’s all going to be okay, remind them to trust God, that we’ll pray for them. But then something happens to us, and we can’t reassure ourselves, and we can’t get out of ourselves, and now we blame God or we stop believing right away. It can amount to the same thing if our fervent prayers for others (mind you they must be fervent for this to matter) are not answered satisfactorily. Because now it’s a personal reflection on God’s disposition towards us again.
I am lucky to be Catholic, though. The faith is a foundation for understanding suffering. Suffering may be foreign to me or someone else as an individual, but it is not foreign to the faith. The understanding is there, waiting for us to reach out and take it, if we’re not afraid. Being put into a situation where you really are afraid for your life is a very enlightening way to learn where you are in your understanding of suffering and death, to find out if you’re all talk or not. In this way, a scare can be a blessing in itself. A dress rehearsal. Don’t waste that.
But I still go through my nightly death-scare ritual.
Getting closer to Easter–though who knows if there will even be Mass or church services in general thanks to the virus–is a good time to contemplate the mystery of suffering and death. Don’t worry–we’re all going to get our chance. The question is, are we going to face it like cowards or saints?
(I can guess which camp I fall under.)
EDIT: After I posted this, I regretted saying that Jesus’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane was a “prayer with the worst track record ever.” I realize that it sounded very flip but I did not intend it that way, only to express how it feels (I believe a common feeling) when we are afraid of what will happen if we follow God’s will, not ours. It is important that we imitate this prayer if we are Christians. I am not deleting it because reflects a stage we might go through when we’re afraid to let go of what we want. (And also because people have already read it and/or hit the “Like” button,” and it would be sneaky to change the post behind their back.)