Sunday, February 17, 2013

To sing in the face of death...

When someone comes to see me for psychotherapy for the first time, one of the questions I frequently ask is this: If talking to me could be helpful, what would you like to see change? or  If from some point in the future, you were to look back at this experience and be glad you did it, what would you like to see be different?

One of the most common responses I hear is: "I just want to be happy."

Certainly this is a very normal and understandable sentiment. People typically come to see a psychologist when things feel bad enough in life that they do not know what else to do. To want to be free of that suffering, to want to feel again (or for the first time), a sense of contentment and enjoyment in life, makes perfect sense. It is built into our beings to strive to feel good and to avoid feeling bad.

However, the question occurred to me recently: is this what we live for? Do we live in order to attain happiness? And, if so, what does that mean? And, if not, what else might we be living for?

The authors of the Declaration of Independence gave happiness considerable prominence, declaring that all people are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". Although we have clearly fallen short of respecting this standard, I think many would still consider it an ideal worth striving for.

We live in a culture where people are perpetually pursuing some form of "happiness", whether it be sought in buying new gadgets, appearing more attractive, eating interesting foods or even taking the right pill to cure what ails us.

Yet, is this what we live for? If I reached the end of my life and had this kind of happy, would I consider it a life well-lived? Would that happiness given meaning to whatever suffering or struggles went before it? And if I did not find myself with that kind of happiness, would my life have been lived in vain? 

There is, I think, but one thing that gives life meaning - and it certainly brings no guarantee of happiness, at least in the way we most commonly use the word. The only thing truly worth living for is, of course, love. Not the love seen in movies or on television commercials but the real thing: the giving of oneself so completely that one is willing to suffer for the other.

Almost by definition, love does not always feel good.

Love also has one very serious drawback: it leaves us vulnerable to some of the worst hurt and pain and sorrow that we as human beings can know. When we love, we risk losing what is most important to us, the very thing that gives our lives meaning. While there are many ways by which love can be lost, the most inevitable of these is death.

Because of the sorrow it brings, we resist death. We run from it and try to deny its inevitability. We scream at God over the unfairness of it - as though it should not happen. And yet death permeates the entire created world we know. Seeds sprout in the spring, flowers bloom and fade in summer; fruit develops and then decays in the fall, dropping its seed into the decay of death where it remains through winter. And the very decay of death is what nourishes the seedling the following spring.

How is it that something as natural as death feels so alien to our nature? 

Perhaps part of it is our arrogance - our "original sin" - that we want to be gods creating our own way rather than following the Way given us by our Creator. 

However, perhaps it is also because we have been made capable of love, a capacity that gives us glimpses of fullness of the One who is Love. Perhaps there is something in us that knows that we do not have souls but are souls (paraphrasing C. S. Lewis) - eternal souls that have bodies that will eventually be discarded when worn out or damaged. We believe (or want to believe) that there is something in us that lives after our bodies are gone.

It seems quite likely that both notions are true. Certainly we human beings have perverted the whole notion of love, often making it a selfish pursuit about romance and sex and making ourselves feel good. We think we have a way that is better than the Way and, if only we can hang on to it, we will be able to make ourselves happy. 

But many of us hunger for more and see the emptiness of our own ways. We see that what we have tried to convince ourselves is love can only end in pain and brokenness. We long for a better Way. And if there is a God, a God who is love and invites us into that love, then perhaps the sorrow of death is not nearly so great as we thought. It is still sorrowful in the human sense of missing the bodily presence of those whom we love - Jesus himself normalized this sorrow when he wept for Lazarus. But, by raising Lazarus from the dead, he showed us that this sorrow is but a momentary illusion.

And He did not stop there. Those of us who believe that Jesus is the Christ believe that he accepted suffering and death (not forced but truly accepted), transforming the experience we think of as destruction into the ultimate act of love. His acceptance of death does not mean that it was not frightening or painful for Him. As human as we are, Jesus agonized in the garden while he anticipated death.

Those of us who believe that Jesus rose from the dead believe that this Love, the suffering-accepted-unto-death Love, is stronger than death. Death, the death we once thought to be destruction, has itself been destroyed. In its place is an invitation to live our lives in the Way of that Love, to embody that Love in all we say and do. Then our bodies, whether worn out by age or damaged by the evils of our world, will be surrendered...but the eternal souls we are will fully know Him and be known by Him. We will live in that Love eternally, part of the community of unending Love to which all are invited.

So, for a time, like Him, we may weep for the passing of others, we may agonize with our own fears and sorrows, but only for a time. Accepting His invitation, our vision clears and we see the Truth - not just a truth of some distant future - but a Truth that has been with us from the very beginning. 

(I made the short video that follows as part of my class on art and monasticism. Its title, "wabi-sabi", is a Japanese term described by one online author as "the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death". Hence, all of the photographs were taken of dead and decaying bits of nature found within a half block of my house during this Cleveland winter. The background music is a simple rendering of the hymn, "How can I keep from singing?" composed by Robert Lowry. I have re-printed the words to the hymn below. Knowing that "love is lord of heaven and earth", we may indeed sing in the face of death...)

"My life flows on in endless song
above earth's lamentation.
I hear the real though far off hymn
that hails a new creation.


No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that rock I'm clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing.
It sounds and echoes in my soul;
how can I keep from singing?

What though the tempest 'round me roar,
I hear the truth, it liveth;
What though the darkness 'round me close,
songs in the night it giveth."