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Death’s Dark Shadow – Part 1

May 1, 2014

pink-elephant-arline-wagnerDeath is not something we like to think about. Because of this death isn’t something we think about, whether it be because of a willful denial (more conscious), or because of habituated denial (more unconscious). Ironically though, like the proverbial pink elephant that we are not supposed to think about, death is the one thing we can’t help but think about. This may not be altogether obvious to us, but given hopefully a few deft maneuvers on my part, we will begin to see that it is the very thing we can almost not stop thinking about.


Death, if I can put it simply, is the bad thing. It is the bad thing that happens to us. It is this fate that we are all inexorably drawn to like ants to a picnic. It is this final climactic (or anti-climactic, depending on your view) event in our lives when everything we have lived, worked, hoped, loved, dreamed, struggled for goes out from us “not with a bang, but with a whimper.” All human striving, ingenuity, intelligence, creativity, tragedy, wickedness, folly, wisdom, wonder, and spectacle slides like a greased wheel into this black hole. Even a heroic death is only heroic to the living, the dead don’t enjoy it. We, for all we know, don’t get to participate in our funerals. Despite our protestations and creative measures and the false prophets of singularity, death is not something we can avoid. It is wildly, laughably beyond our control; it is an equal opportunist in this way because it swallows the best and brightest along with the idiots and fools.

Despite this end, this bad thing that happens, we tend to think of it as exactly that “the bad thing that happens.” It is something there, at the end, and we can at least with moderate success pretend that its finality can at least be deferred. This is where an insight from Scripture is profoundly troubling, and perhaps helpful (but not yet); it is found in the 23rd Psalm, perhaps one of the two or three most known passages in the Bible. This David Psalm tells us that there is this thing called the “valley of the shadow of death.” Meaning, there is death (i.e. the bad thing that happens), and then there is death’s shadow, which for our purposes we can simply say is the bad thing that is happening. Though not death itself, death’s shadow is its prefiguring, its haunting presence in the ‘land of the living’ to use another phrase from David.


So there is the bad thing that happens, but there is also the bad thing that is happening, death’s dark shadow. Though not as horrible or terrifying as death, this shadow haunts. The bad thing that is happening is simply all of the unavoidable bad things that show up in our lives, these little agonies are beyond our control because they are like death itself, the monolithic event that his beyond the scope of human will or fortitude. It is the minor disappointments that your latte was made incorrectly, to the driver in front of you who clearly is not from around here, to the fact that you someone in your house only left a dribble of orange juice in the refrigerator instead of polishing it off and throwing away the carton. It is also the more major catastrophes that barge into our lives unannounced like an unwelcomed guest; a tornado rips through town taking our daughters and sons, cancer is the diagnosis, the business that failed, the husband who has now deserted you, the child who never calls.


anti-aging serumThese happenings are scattered throughout our lives and they are precisely the things which we spend so much of our energy avoiding, attempting to gain some sort of leverage against. Our “life” simply becomes and endless hamster wheel of unsuccess in avoidance. The ‘anti-aging’ cosmetics? Really? It is amazing that we believe that b.s., but since we are so inclined to avoid death, we will swallow the lies of hucksters because we want them to lie to us. We want to be told that we can avoid ‘aging’ which is simply a euphemism for avoiding death. You may remove wrinkles with Botox or Oil-of-Olay but you will simply have taught skin that is torched or fodder for the worms. We shuffle the old into homes, away and out of sight, we look away from the homeless, we talk a big game when it comes to the poor but never deliver the goods… Why? Because they are harbingers of death, reminding us that death doesn’t deal in wares or wealth. We purchase “retirement packages” which are a version of secular heaven, where you get to the point in your life where you can do whatever you want, this sort of blissful final resting place. But the retirement packages, even the ones that actually work, are a sort of colossal final resistance to the fate which awaits the old. This retirement isn’t something that you can actually enjoy, or at least not that long. Death swallows the happy retirement too. When you watch retirement commercials they show a couple that is still spry enough to be active, yet aged enough to qualify. What they don’t show about this phase of life is the increasing regularity with which death’s shadow interjects. Whether it’s prostate cancer, or early onset alzheimers, whether it’s simple frailty or a lifetime of bad habits that have caused relational estrangements. Whatever it may be, they never factor into the advertising executives portrayal of this stage, and yet for most this is precisely what ‘retirement’ looks like. Additionally we throw money by the boatload, at least in the modern West, toward healthcare. Healthcare, ironically, is one of our most reliable avoidance mechanisms because it projects success. Cancers go into remission, bones are mended, heart disease is prevented, medicines cure. Healthcare works. But it doesn’t, it simply prolongs the inevitable.

Our lives from beginning to end are lived in the shadow of death, the unceasing presence of the bad thing that is happening. From our earliest experiences of separation anxiety and to the first lost balloon, from the first joke at your expense to the first heart-break, from the first failed class to the first lost job, the bad thing is always happening. All these things which despite our best efforts have remained out of our control, which seem to interrupt what might have been a delightful existence, are simply reminders that in terms of the big things in life, we are not our own masters.

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