On a warm Sunday afternoon when I was five years old, I went fishing with my grandfather on a small Michigan lake. No one knows just what happened, but my memories are vivid though fragmentary. I can still see my grandfather standing in the boat and feel the icy water climbing slowly up my ankles and legs. Sometimes even now when I'm swimming, I imagine cushions and cans floating in the water and smell the peculiar odor of outboard engine fuel that hovered over the water on that day so long ago.
I woke up in a large, unfamiliar bed, the sheets wrapped so tightly around me that I couldn't move. I heard someone say the word undertaker, and for a moment I thought that I must have died. But I was alive. My grandfather had held me up out of the water and had lifted me onto the top of the capsized boat--my memory of these crucial moments is more of sensations than emotions. My grandfather had died saving my life.
I have often wondered what effect this early experience of death had on me. I sometimes wonder whether the emotional heaviness I often feel, that seems part of my nature, can be traced to that first intimate meeting with death. I also sometimes wonder whether my professional life as a long-time student, a professor, a therapist, and a writer about the soul has roots in this early encounter with death.
Modern life is widely engaged in flight from and denial of death. Some people are preoccupied with thoughts of how they are going to die and with ways in which they might prevent that specific form of death. Some imagine that their death will wear the mask of cancer, others a failed heart. Some business and political leaders seem so far from thoughts of death that they feel no pangs about pouring poisons into our rivers, threatening the life and health of their own children.
The chief emotional complaint of our time seems to be depression, whether it reaches a clinical level of seriousness or is more the tonality of our ordinary lives felt as sadness, aimlessness, emptiness, or indefinable loss. Depression is the death-mood of the soul, the turning away from life. Emotionally we place a high value on having a cheery, upbeat disposition. When depression arrives, we are doubly defeated--once by the weight of the mood and again by our failure to remain successfully happy.
We might give death a place by not becoming too heroic in our efforts to be chronically cheerful, by speaking honestly from our sadness, and by refusing to adopt the many modern methods available for escape from sadness. Positively, we might allow the more shady and hollow moods to shape our life, at least temporarily. When struck by our sadness, we might seek out some solitude, withdraw constructively, and concentrate on issues--crime, poverty, and injustice--that quite properly make us sad.
Some scholars say that the roots of religious expression are to be found in the ways a people honors its dead. At the personal level, too, religious sensibility can be grounded in a direct and constructive approach to the many ways in which death plays a role in life. The sense of mortality that illness brings may remind us of our need for religious vision.
To see the positive place of death in life requires a religious sensibility, because secularism believes only in the future. How important it is to remember the dead, pray for them, tell their stories, and keep in touch with them in memory. When a culture loses its religious sensibility, many important values get split into highly emotional, destructive, and excessive versions of themselves. People may go made in search of vitality, in crazed entertainment, travel, and political ambition. On the other side, they may find death-substitutes in the stupor of drugs, mindless television, and deadening work.
The key is to keep life and death, in all the ways these two archetypes are lived in ordinary life, so closely related that it is difficult to tell one from the other. Then we may fully live and perhaps not see death as literal defeat. To accomplish this fusion we need deep faith and expansive vision. Ultimately it is a grace given to those who surrender to the life-death reality that makes up our inner and outer worlds. As a steady influence, death gives daily existence a deepening, anti-heroic quality, toning down the anxious and frenzied pursuit of self-justification, allowing the sheer pleasure in being alive to provide a sense of connection and purpose.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: "Come to Me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden light."
Thomas Moore is a Jungian psychotherapist and former Catholic monk. He is the author of 'Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life' (1993), Soul Mates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationships' (1994), and 'The Soul of Sex: Celebrating Life As an Act of Love" (1998).