“Could you pass me a tissue?”
In the middle of the ER in the early morning hours, there were boxes of gloves in different sizes and shelves full of oxygen masks and blankets. No tissues. The nurse pointed at something in front of me. Nothing. She grabbed a tissue from a gray box hooked onto the wall in front of me, and I stepped back from the gurney. The patient’s arm was broken, hanging over the bed at an angle that was all wrong. An EMT was performing CPR, smashing his hands into the young man’s chest. I wondered if his ribs would be crushed.
A doctor who had been on call was wearing a plastic surgical gown over a suit and tie. Another was wearing basketball shorts and a t-shirt. As for me, I was in black scrubs and tennis shoes. It occurred to me that even though I—a pre-med college sophomore—was the least qualified in the room, when they called the time of death, no one was ready for it any more than I was. Its unsettling current did not discriminate.
A few minutes later, the same nurse asked me to clean splatters of blood from the linoleum floor. I found the tissues myself this time, but watching the tile turn pink and then white made me sick to my stomach. I had encountered death before; I knew the terrible sting of rooms that shouldn’t have been empty. But I had never been there at the moment of death, particularly not when so many people were trying to keep it at hand’s breadth, to keep it from coming too soon.
After my shift, the bright sunlight outside accosted me. As a chaplain met with the grieving family in the ER, I returned to campus and got a latte from Starbucks. I found a spot in the library, a bay window overlooking a grove of trees, to read Laocoon. But art criticism felt futile, as did my attempts to understand the text. Eventually I closed the book, disinterestedly sipping my cold coffee as I watched the leaves on the ancient live oaks shake in the wind. The only thing I had done for the family was wipe their son’s blood from the white linoleum.
College is a world of constant beginnings. Every six months, sometimes more often, new classes start. Endings always ushered in new beginnings, providing a sort of intoxicating illusion: Behind every closed door, another would always open. Until one did not. In the ER, I watched an end without a beginning. Life did not return; nothing began anew. I didn’t witness a resurrection.
And what was I supposed to do about that?
A Universal Struggle
Our struggle with death is nearly universal, rendering time and place irrelevant. This makes sense, as the compulsion to find meaning in the world in the midst of suffering, pain, or death is at least a partially biological instinct for humans. In his book Why Won’t God Go Away, Dr. Andrew Newberg writes about how the human brain has an “insatiable need to sort confusion into order.”[i] Because of this,
In its tireless quest to identify and resolve any threat that can potentially harm us, the mind has discovered the one alarming apprehension that can’t be resolved by any natural means—the sobering understanding that everyone dies….[ii]
Death is a particularly difficult concept for the brain to wrap itself around because more knowledge does not soften the reality of its inevitability for each of us. Death never becomes more manageable. While not speaking about death in particular, the psychologist Martin Seligman captures this reality well, writing,
As a therapist I was trained to believe that it was my job to help depressed patients both to feel happier and to see the world more clearly. I was supposed to be the agent of happiness and of truth. But maybe truth and happiness antagonize each other. Perhaps what we have considered good therapy for a depressed patient merely nurtures benign illusions….[iii]
Indeed, standing in that emergency room at the time of death crumbled my illusion that every end would lead to a beginning. In his commentary on Ecclesiastes, David Gibson sums up this illusory avoidance of death well, writing “The reality is that if death doesn’t inform the way we live, then death is something we are pretending doesn’t exist.”[iv] Death had not informed my life; I had pretended it didn’t exist because that was more comfortable than wrestling with the “alarming apprehension,” to borrow from Dr. Newberg, “that everyone dies.” But now that the illusion was broken. As Seligman predicated, truth was not an agent of happiness, and I didn’t know what to do.
Easing Existential Questions through Myth
In response to our broken illusions, Dr. Newberg suggests that our brains begin to formulate more questions, the most pressing of which is, “How can we live in this bafflingly uncertain world and not be afraid?”[v] He continues:
These are confounding questions, but the cognitive imperative cannot let them lie, so it tirelessly pushes the mind to find resolution. For thousands of years in cultures around the globe, that resolution has been found in the form of myth.[vi]
Dr. Newman suggests that myths—stories about our past, present, and future—relieve the brain of the weight of these existential questions. While not eliminating death itself, these stories frame our deaths within a larger context that makes them seem less foreboding. In his book Telling a Better Story, Joshua Chatraw picks up on this universal desire for resolution “in the form of myth,” writing,
…[T]here is something in the human heart, even amid the culture shifts and our disordered fallen condition, that longs for the better story.[vii]
Significantly, finding a story that we can base our lives around does not mean that we simply nurse a broken illusion of immortality with another illusion. We do not want to sacrifice what is true for what makes us happy because we will then have to guard against another illusion breaking. If we pretend that something else exists to assuage our existential angst about death, we are still pretenders, fostering another illusion, the sort of deception that Seligman struggled against. To borrow from CS Lewis, we need a “true myth,”[viii] a story about ourselves that we believe not because it relieves existential angst, but because it is an accurate depiction of reality.
A true myth would begin with a true account of what life is. In the Biblical canon, there is perhaps no book that deals with these existential questions more piercingly—and honestly—than the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. The author of Ecclesiastes, called “the Preacher,” wrestles with them throughout its twelve chapters. As my colleague Derek Caldwell has suggested, the book is sometimes unfairly considered dour, when perhaps the best descriptor is sober. Indeed, the opening itself begins with an invitation to sit in the reality of living in a world that is passing away: to stare truth in the face and sit with it, even if it does, perhaps, make us uneasy, “antagonize” our happiness, and send our brains into overdrive as we contemplate it. It opens:
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher,
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”Ecclesiastes 1:2
Everything in this world, the Preacher says—he goes into more detail on the “vanity” of wisdom, self-indulgence, and work in the following passages—is going to come to nothing. The word translated as vanity is the Hebrew word hevel. It literally means breath[ix], capturing the idea of something that appears for a moment and then disappears, like our exhalation on a cold day. It means that everything that we are working towards will one day disappear—everything we are working towards is vanity because life is not fair and ends in death. In the words of David Gibson,
This side of eternity, life is a breath. We do the same things over and over again in a world repeating itself over and over again, and then we die, only to be followed by our children who will do the same things in the same way and then meet the same end.[x]
Being a Christian doesn’t stop this being true. Rather, it should make us the first to stop pretending that it isn’t true.…
The beginning of Ecclesiastes forces us to look head-on at the reality of death. There is no pretension, no comfort, just sheer, stark reality: death is the status quo. Standing in an emergency room at the time of death pulled me out of a certain naivety about the brevity of my own life and the lives of those I love. And Ecclesiastes seems to be saying: under the sun, that’s the right place to be.
But where do we go from that true but desolate place?
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[i] Andrew Newberg, Vince Rause, and Eugene D’ Aquili. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. (Ballantine Books: New York, NY 2002) 60.
[ii] Ibid, 61.
[iii] Martin E Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2018), Google Books, https://www.google.com/books/edition/Learned_Optimism/bT9ecAYHKq0C?hl=en&gbpv=0.
[iv] David Gibson, Living Life Backward (Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2017) 44.
[v] Newberg, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, 61.
[vii] Josh Chatraw, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk about God in a Skeptical Age. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2020) 18.
[viii] The full quote is: “The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.” Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis — A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013) 149.
[ix] From Faithlife Study Bible: “The Hebrew word hevel occurs more times in Ecclesiastes than in all other books combined. It literally means ‘breath’ or ‘vapor,’ but it can be understood as ‘vanity,’ ‘meaninglessness,’ ‘absurdity,’ or ‘senselessness.’ The author of Ecclesiastes uses the word to describe frustrating or unfair situations.” John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Ec 1:2.
[x] Gibson, Living Life Backward, 28.