“Thus John found Mr. Harrison in an impersonal milieu, afraid to die and afraid to live.”
— Henri J.M. Nouwen (1932–1996)
JOHN finds Mr. Harrison in his hospital bed anticipating an imminent leg operation, and this pastoral visit locates the fear of death under anaesthesia. And Mr Harrison does, later, actually die under anaesthetic. He was a 48-year-old labourer, alone in his world, seemingly without hope, looking at the distinct ‘perhaps’ of death – an eternal and an unknowable thing, which, like his life, he would have seemingly little control over. His hope for survival lay in more hard labour – more of the same. He was afraid to die, yet he was also afraid to live. Both living and dying were invitations to despair.
There are many people – many, many people – who have experienced such a despairing reality. I have. And I assume we have all had such moments, even for a solitary moment, where we recognised the futility of existence – just for a moment we were afraid to die for what we didn’t know, and we were afraid to live because we knew we must endure more of the same.
There is something in all of us that recognises the humanity in Mr. Harrison’s situation.
There is something in all of us that recognises what little control we have over both life and death.
There is something in all of us that recognises survival relies upon distraction. And there are sufficient and infinite distractions in life; things that will stave off the despairing moment and give us a few hours peace. These are the hopes we stake our lives on.
To be human is to understand the existential struggle: the tension between life and death and to know the unsatisfactory nature of both. This was the exact tension Qoheleth of Ecclesiastes spoke of.
Faith – the Only Way
But then there is faith; the faith we espouse as Christians, as we believe in a good God – who we feel has purposeful plans for us both here in life and beyond in death. Is there any need for unbelief; to fight against what can only help us? Surely unbelief can bring only misery. Surely unbelief can bring only hopelessness through a lack of purpose because of the diffusion of passion.
We are ruined without passion. Without passion we can have no compassion.
And if we have no compassion we can receive no healing, and that which is solely good is forever lost to us. Without compassion we lose every impetus for life.
Being afraid to die and afraid to live is such a human problem, the only solution for which is faith; to accept salvation in the name of the Lord. For, whenever we resist God our lives tend south. We find we have nowhere to go in our minds and hearts for solace and sanctuary. But by faith we retrieve hope.
Faith is the way beyond fearing death and fearing life. Through faith, purpose is found, then passion, which comes to be manifest in compassion. Faith is circular and it takes us north, out of hopelessness and into hopefulness. But faith is a journey and we must receive the compassion of God.
© 2013 S. J. Wickham.