Discussing the Obvious: What About Dying?

Contemplating random death from the Novel Coronavirus terrifies us. It’s like an African lion spontaneously appearing in our backyard to devour us. How could this be?

Middle class people unconsciously insulate against the inevitable, thinking “I’m not going to die now!” We plan our finances, see doctors and exercise regularly in an apotropaic to ward off death. Reading the obituaries, we compare ourselves to those who have died, gauging our probabilities. “Oh, he’s much older. Oh, she died of a disease I’ll never get.” We limit our mental exposure to the idea of dying as much as humanly possible.

We know people may die randomly in auto accidents. But, like roulette table gamblers, we estimate the odds. We buy cars with not only seatbelts but collision bags, backup cameras and accident avoiding brakes. We determine the limits to our risks.

But not with the Novel Coronavirus, unlike random traffic accidents. Without history we cannot assess risk. “How could I get sick going to the grocery store? It makes no sense.” The new reality threatens to destroy our carefully constructed order and meaning.

How does anything have meaning if I can die like this, unanticipated, without warrant? I understand giving my life for a commitment: for my children, or my country, or for God. But die from a burp of nature, a quixotic metabolic anomaly originating far removed from me, a virus that I cannot see, cannot measure?

How insignificant am I, if today I am safe within my world and tomorrow I am on a ventilator fighting to breathe? Am I a human or a worm, to be squished by a virus I cannot even see? How is this even happening to me?

The Jewish death prayer, kaddish, assures that life is orderly and death is God’s intention. Do you know why Jews say kaddish when someone we love dies? It’s to counter the gut-wrenching feeling of meaninglessness in the face of death’s annihilation. It’s to react the way our ancestors did when they suffered loss of beloved family, and they had to inject meaning into their existence. “God cares about us. Say kaddish.” “This is the way of all flesh. Say kaddish.”

Death is not random at all. It’s 100% certain.

But the circumstances of our death: the subjective, ultimately personal and intimate fact of our absolute vulnerability? Those we fence out of our consciousness as long as possible. When they insistently intrude, we most often attempt to avoid their dreadful tentacles. Extinction terrifies us. We cannot imagine the world without us in it.

Random death throws you off guard. Death terminates future plans, leaves loved ones bereaved, and may even be physically painful. These realities humans must contemplate and discuss. Despite our protests, they matter to us sentient human beings.

And yet, because we don’t share our thoughts of death with others, not even those we most love and respect who will mourn for us, we never accommodate this one ultimate fact: everybody dies. The truth is: death requires lots of rehearsal.

So here’s a radical thought. Don’t let this death opportunity go to waste. You know that everyone surrounding you shares with you this frightful experience: I don’t want to die randomly like this. So what’s keeping you from discussing it? Impolite? Too personal? How can it be impolite or too personal when everyone in the world is feeling exactly the same thing? The truth is, they’ll be relieved because they are no longer alone with their deepest anxieties and most private fears. Now’s the time. Seize the opportunity. Not only will you create links to everyone with whom you share your fears, you will begin to discuss life’s ultimate challenge and to formulate solutions to this ultimate question: “What does my life mean in the face of my inevitable death?”

Try it. You have nothing to lose, and a whole lot to gain. Because, you know what, knowing that literally everyone in the world faces exactly the same problem, obviates the randomness, aloneness, and uniqueness of your potential death. You’re part of the family of humanity, suffering and questioning just like everyone around you. It’s actually quite comforting to know. You are not alone any longer. You’re in the largest family there is: the one questioning why am I here, and what does my life mean? And the answer lies in the conversation you are just about to have for maybe the first time, but certainly not the last.

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© 2016 by Rabbi Mark H. Levin.