From the Director: What Awaits

When my niece was six years old, she would, in the dark middle of the night, lie on her back and have long conversations with an unseen companion. From the other side of her bedroom door, I could hear only enough to know that the conversations were serious and that my niece was certain her words were being heard. One morning I asked her who she had been talking to around midnight. She looked me in the eye and said, “Jehovah.” 

When my mother was in her last stretch of life, she too would have conversations with unseen companions. She would return from these conversations and open her eyes and tell us that she had been talking with her grandparents, whom she had never known. They told her that they were waiting. And, she said, they felt welcoming. Still, my mother didn’t want to go. My sense was that she didn’t want to join them because she wasn’t yet ready to leave her life with family and friends—and because she feared what the crossing might hold. 

Last year, as a close friend lay in bed awaiting his approaching death, he talked only with his young kids, his wife, his mother and siblings, and friends that stopped by. There were no conversations with beings in some other world and, as far as I could tell, no thoughts of another world at all. My friend felt uncomfortable and increasingly weak and absent, but he wasn’t in pain. He said several things during his last days that have stayed in the front of my mind, including this: “If this is how it’s going to end—if it’s just going to get quieter and then slip away—I think I’m OK with that.” Not long after having said this, he did slip away—quietly, it seemed to his wife, and mostly at peace.

For all of us, the crossing over, or the end, could come at any time. This inevitable transition is always with us, though much of the time the thought of it, or feelings about it, may not be. That we can, for much of our lives, ignore or forget about death or its possible otherworldly consequences is a strange blessing; it certainly feels easier—lighter, more pleasant—to think about dinner or the upcoming Blazers game than to think about my approaching death and perhaps my approaching judgment. But is it better for me? Would it be better to lie in bed as my niece used to, talking with some divine presence about the reward or punishment to come?

I remember reading with surprise many years ago Thomas Hobbes’s claim in Leviathan that the strongest drive in human beings—and therefore the most reliable foundation for any political regime—is the fear of violent death. Build on this, Hobbes argued, and people will authorize or consent to the system of rule in front of them. Build on people’s fear of terrible consequences that could lie ahead, and from this you can help them live in a more secure commonwealth.

Hobbes was writing in another time (the middle of the seventeenth century) and another place (an England riven by civil war). It was a more violent, less comfortable time and place than today’s United States, but what he wrote had a huge influence on our founding political documents and the culture that has developed in this country. We’ve moved from Hobbes’s reliance on the fear of violent death to John Locke’s gentler “life, liberty, and property,” and then to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” from our own Declaration of Independence—and somehow, thanks to unfathomable material and cultural changes over the past few centuries, we no longer think so much about death, let alone violent death, or judgment, especially the eternal kind. 

But no matter how accustomed we’ve become to hiding death, or hiding from death, it still surrounds us and awaits us. And in the eyes of our fellow travelers, and perhaps in the accounting of our gods, so might judgment. 

My close friend who died last year lived as upstanding a life as anyone I’ve known, and this may have helped him accept his approaching death. He also benefited, as many of us do, from sophisticated medications, especially in the area of pain management—which, in another way, may have tamped down his fear of what was coming.

But even with his admirable example in front of me, I feel more like my mother; I’m not sanguine about going. I’d rather stay in this place I’ve come to know, and I’m not sure about the character of the inevitable trip or what awaits on the other side. Hobbes’s discourse and my niece’s midnight conversations have stayed with me: there may be much to fear. 


Death and Dying, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Fear


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