Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

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Remember That You Will Die

Published on Monday, December 31, 2018

Remember That You Will Die

For those of you who regularly read my blogs – or for the occasional visitor – I acknowledge that it’s been about two months since I posted my last one. The reason is because I have been otherwise preoccupied with preparing for and then getting remarried ... to a wonderful man who has given me a gift of his love. He is a widower, and since I lost my late husband more than five years ago, I was ready for a certain quality of relationship in my life that had been missing for that length of time. Hence, blog writing had to wait as our “simple” wedding mushroomed into a wonderful gathering of family and friends from near and far. But perhaps more of that at some later time.

So here we are with a new blog at last. And this post has been gestating within my brain for all of that time. In the Nov. 7 issue of The Christian Century I read the lead article by Matt Fitzgerald titled “Shaping My Mind to Die.” (See lead photo.) I was very affected by the piece and carried my thoughts about it to Denver for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and then on to California for a family Thanksgiving. At both stops I discussed Fitzgerald’s article with everyone I shared a glass or a meal with. I decided then to make that piece the basis of my next blog. Hence this writing.

Fitzgerald begins his article with the observation that a smart phone app called WeCroak changed his entire life. This app was developed by a Buddhist practitioner by the name of Hansa Bergwall. Apparently one Buddhist exhortation is that happiness can be experienced if one contemplates death five times a day. The app was an outgrowth of this Buddhist practice. If you put this app on your smart phone, five times a day it will chime on and remind you that you will die. Sort of puts all the small stuff in your life that stresses you in perspective. That annoying guy in the pickup who cuts you off in traffic, the bill from Visa that’s higher than you thought it should be, rent that needs to be paid, the irritating person next to you in church – you know, all the small stuff of daily life – doesn’t amount to much when you remember that you are going to die. With that backdrop in mind, actually very few things matter ... finally maybe just family, friends, and love ... and God if you are religiously inclined.

So there is something really freeing and, in a sense, happiness-making if you remember this most basic of human facts. As a psychiatrist friend of mine said many years ago as he was giving a talk on some topic or other, “Everyone dies!” And for some who have reached a ripe old age and who grow nearer to that inevitable reality, life becomes richer and simpler. In her recent book titled Almost Everything (see the second photo below), Anne Lamott talks about the blessing of simplification near this life’s ending. She says:

Life is richer when it is simple. A walk, buttered toast, a child’s soccer game. You’re afforded the opportunity to stop doing and can instead just be here. Wow ... [contemplation] is being a human being, implicit in the job description, what my very old friends have loved most at the end. They can’t look anymore to power, stature, schedules, or fame to fill them up. And they sure as hell don’t feel like entertaining you. All those things turn out not to have been real and eternal. Love did and is, that’s all.

The reason to draw close to death when we’re younger is to practice finding and living in the soul. This grows our muscles for living. In the absence of the illusion of power and majesty, we see that the soul was right here all along, everywhere, and consequently we can once again feel charmed by the world.
(p. 119)
Interestingly, Fitzgerald – after extolling the virtues of WeCroak – winds up recommending that the reader finally delete that app from their smart phone, as he also wound up doing in the end. He contrasts the happiness that the app brought him in his daily rounds with joy that can come with the assurance of Christian faith. Joy and happiness are not at odds with each other, but neither are they the same. He observes that while WeCroak thinks death is natural, Christianity says that death is obscene. The rock basis of our faith is that Christ incarnate lived among us and died and rose again to overcome death in the end.

Death. The mortal enemy of humankind. Fitzgerald reminds us that St. Paul wrote, “All will be made alive in Christ. Death has been defeated. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye ... the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Fitzgerald concludes his piece with this:

Scripture came on like a cattle prod. Having spent months shaping my mind to die, I heard Paul’s contempt for the grave in all its crowing fury. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Hit by the faith that fed me before I learned to speak, my newfound Stoic happiness cracked like a plastic bumper. ... In the end, it comes down to this: WeCroak thinks death is natural. Christianity says death is obscene. Worse that this; WeCroak can make you happy. The risen Christ can give you joy. So delete the app!

... WeCroak establishes that happiness can be willed and sustained. It is strong enough to take the everyday and make it bearable. In these ways, happiness is like faith. It can be practiced. It must be practiced.

Joy [springing from faith] is like Christ. Joy arrives on its own terms. It turns tables over and leaves you gasping in its aftermath. Happiness and joy are different, not mutually exclusive. I shouldn’t have to choose between the two, but with this app, a choice presents itself: I am a Christian, and WeCroak is asking me to place my faith in the grave. ... I aim to leave it there. I won’t forget. I’m going to die. For now, I’m trying to remember something else. We will rise again.
(p. 27)
And so Fitzgerald embraces both practices – practicing happiness by remembering death, and thus simplifying his life by keeping daily events in the right perspective. But he also resolves to practice our faith, embracing the promise of life beyond this one, and living in that hope of eternal life. Thus, happiness and joy can both be ours with daily practice. So I will try to remember both practices in my everyday life and I invite you to do the same. Practice happiness; practice joy. And live life fully as we walk each other home in the end.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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