Thanatophobia is fear of death, or death anxiety. It’s an unhealthy fixation on the idea that we will all die. I had never heard of it until a few years ago, when I was diagnosed with it. The problem wasn’t that I was thinking about death (Ecclesiastes 7:2 tells us we learn more in a cemetery than in a party), the problem was where my thinking on the subject took me.
If we all die, my thinking went, then this is all pointless. What matters? What is the worth of getting up in the morning? Why did God make me to exist in the first place? Why am I here? Thinking like that makes it hard to get out of bed. The best you can do is exist in a kind of wasteland. Existing isn’t the same as Living. How do I know? Because I’ve done both.
Last year, in a deep depression, I wrote to God about my experience in the wasteland in a poem (super emo I know I know). Some excerpts: “the stomach sours / and the throat chokes...shocking cloying of entropy / irradiated dust...Ash bodies / Unborn bodies / Inside out bodies...I study this old map and squint / The topography remains inscrutable / I don’t see you on here / I don’t see you anywhere / Are we winning?”
I asked God to tell me if I’d feel like this forever, so at least I could make peace with that fact. If not, I asked Him to show me how to know something else. He didn’t say anything out loud to me, or boom an answer into my brain. He did speak, though, over several months.
He spoke through a supportive wife willing to pay what it took to get me into counseling. She would work extra hours, she said. We would figure it out. He spoke through elders at church ready to drop everything to meet with me and listen. He spoke through doctors able to diagnose and prescribe. He spoke in a community center garden. A wasteland, of sorts.
I wrote that poem in our community center’s garden. I walk it regularly, keeping an eye on the various fish in the pond, the bees, the native plants and flowers and trees. I was making my daily rounds in winter when I wrote it - it was cold and rainy and everything that had been vibrant weeks before in the garden was dead. Except that it wasn’t. That’s when He spoke. I knew the garden enough to know that just because something wasn’t flowering at the moment didn’t mean that it was barren or over. It would be back. I knew what the garden looked like on other days. When spring came I was the first person to see the bees buzzing around the arbor, flying around the first blooms. I remember thinking Oh, this is what salvation is. This is what regeneration is. This is what Life is.
The Good News isn’t that bad times don’t ever come, or that we’re always safe. Evil happens, and death is real. We all know that. We see it around us. We see chaos, entropy, alienation, the damage caused by the illusion of Other-ness. The Good News is that Life overcomes Death. And it isn’t just One Day in the future that it happens. It happens all the time, in the past-present-future. In other words, knowing that Life wins changes everything, all the time.
It’s like this: On the show Game of Thrones, there’s a “water dancer” (an expert fencer) called Syrio. He teaches his students this: “What do we say to the god of Death? ‘Not today.’” That’s the Gospel in a nutshell. Syrio’s lesson isn’t that we won’t die - we will, certainly. We will all fall. His lesson is that in the face of Death, we choose to Live. That in itself is a victory. In the wasteland, the knowledge of Death chokes the life and joy out of the present. It renders life hopeless. It’s an early and ongoing death.
When we know Life, we say to the god of Death “Not today,” every day. We battle as soldiers, claiming ground for Life. Even on the day of our death, we say it to Death’s face. Even when awful things happen. We say “Not today,” by living with hope, by doing good, by loving, by celebrating, by having the audacity to take root and blossom and flourish. Proverbs 28 says, “The righteous are as bold as lions.” It’s that. We are never cowed. Not by Death, not by anything.
While it has been hard, I am glad I’ve focused on death for so long, because it’s helped me understand Life so much more deeply. Maybe that’s the point of my deployments to the wasteland. I know both Death and Life. I know to say to Death, “Not today,” every day.
I know that Life is beautiful.