Anecdotally, they say that fear of public speaking is the biggest fear of mankind, after fear of death. Everyone smiles at this order of priorities, but no one disputes or discusses the fear at the top of the ranking.
Jean-Dominique Bauby became a sensation in 1995 when, using the only muscle he could move (the one on his left eyelid), he managed to dictate his biography, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” letter by letter. Later, a film of the same name told the story of the Frenchman who suffered from locked-in syndrome. He was completely paralysed but fully conscious and completely in love with life.
In “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Bauby pleaded for the meaning of his life, even within the limited conditions in which he found himself. Whether diving like a diving bell into the depths of his soul, browsing through the treasures of the memories of his past, or flying like a butterfly, imagining things that did not yet exist, Bauby had discovered a way to make his inner life beautiful and worthy of being lived. For me, it is proof that a person’s love for life finds ways to penetrate and come to the surface even when circumstances are overwhelming.
Some of the victims of concentration camps (Nazi and others) demonstrated the same thirst for life. Although nearly decimated, after being stripped of their dignity and exposed to the essence of human evil, they still clung to life, as one would to a treasure worth keeping, even when there is only evidence to the contrary around.
Passion for life
Names such as Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank are literature’s real-life examples that evoke a passion for life in readers, shining all the more brightly as it manifests itself in the presence of anti-life sentiments and the extermination of any cause for joy.
Of course, concentration camp stories are representative of an extreme. But that extreme has the power to make today’s common negative circumstances have a different referential than the whims of our emotions and thus make the present easier to tolerate, accept, or even control. For some, reading into a world where nothing of the beauty of life is recognisable helps them appreciate more what they have and to focus less on loss.
Needless to say, losses are inherent. However, such stories help us internalise the fact that no matter how desperate our cause may seem, we never really hit rock bottom. Frankl, for example, was convinced that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” “Drive out despair, and you will keep death away from yourselves,” was Elie Wiesel’s belief, even after he came close to losing his faith because of the atrocities he witnessed.
“Where there is hope, there is life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again,” wrote young Anne Frank. ‘Loss is always relative’ seems to be the summary of the legacy of the three authors. And the hearts of millions of readers have resonated deeply with this message, because it is woven into the fibre of our being. Even when we feel we are at our wits’ end, even if we are not able to say it, something in our heart still wants to believe that all is not lost, that in fact, we never truly lose everything.
That is why a few words about life, spoken by Jesus Christ, are as shocking today as they probably were to those who heard His speech.
Life, according to John the evangelist
“Anyone who loves their life will lose it” (John 12:25) are the words of the incarnate, meaning “that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Their effect is similar to a crash. The whole order of priorities is shaken from its foundation under the seismic influence of these words so difficult to understand. The Gospel of John begins with a description of the human soul motivated by the love of life. Although austere, it is very profound.
“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind” (John 1:4), the author says, which means that life is utterly precious to mankind. The simplicity of this sentence makes it sound so axiomatic that when Jesus proclaims that “anyone who loves their life will lose it,” the dilemma is inevitable.
On the one hand, the Bible recognises and describes the human need for the permanence of life, while on the other hand, it paradoxically warns that it is exactly when you love your life you are in danger of losing it. Those familiar with biblical literature know that it has nothing to do with Murphy’s Law; in addition, karmic revenge has no place in the Judeo-Christian metanarrative.
So how can this statement of Christ be explained? Could it be that the fierce desire to live—the one that radiates so beautifully and inspiringly in concentration camp literature—could be rewarded with its exact opposite? If God gives people the gift of life, why should He not rejoice when those who receive it cherish this gift?
The statement is found, with little variation, in all four synoptic gospels, a sign that those who followed Christ felt the meaning of His words so strongly that they could not help but include them in the spiritual testament they wished to leave to Christians. In all places where it occurs, the beloved life is the present-day life, and is always put in antagonism with eternal life, or salvation.
The traditional interpretation is therefore that attachment to trivial, superficial and transient values is an eternal loss. Whoever loves this life is self-limiting. However, ideas with a generous practical applicability flow from this interpretation.
Without realising it, we often tend to confuse fear of death with the love of life. Because fear of death is generally considered a sign of weakness, we disguise this fear into the much more dignified passion for life. That is why, for example, those who practise high-risk sports say that they “live more intensely” this way.
The feeling of escaping death by an inch gives them the impression that they have control over their own person and that the sport they practise is an artistic exercise in overcoming death. Others, less poetic, will say that it is simply a chemical addiction to the adrenaline that pumps through their bodies when they practise extreme sports. But even so, the illustration of the defiance of death retains its value as an example, without claiming to be the only explanation.
Staring at the sun
When we fear death, we lose our life; it is a corollary of Christ’s statement. And it is, apparently, a very similar thesis to that of American psychiatrist Irvin Yalom. In the book “Staring at the Sun,” he emphasises how important it is to relate to the idea of imminent death, with intent and awareness but with some self-imposed limitations. He likened this intellectual confrontation to a brief glance at the sun.
You look at it and notice that it is there but do not stare because otherwise you risk going blind. So, you direct your eyes to what is around you and let the sun shine on all things. Yalom’s metaphor wants to convey that the prospect of death helps you to see everything you saw before, but from a different perspective, and to appreciate everything at its true value. In other words, if you are aware that you will only have something for a short time, you will enjoy it more intensely.
Yalom uses this metaphor to help his patients who are facing a paralysing fear of death. People with terminal illnesses, the elderly suffering from degenerative diseases and facing the desolate image of their own limitations, but also healthy people affected by the death of a loved one—and the entire cascade of thoughts and allusions to their own death that comes with the death of someone close—are the types of patients that Yalom strives to heal. Through everything he tells his patients, Dr Yalom tries to help them internalise the idea that, as long as they are still alive, death can do them no harm but, on the contrary, can help them live like they’ve never lived before.
Still, how can someone, terrified of their own finitude, get rid of fear and enjoy life? Yalom tries to help his patients—and, implicitly, his readers—make friends with the world’s great thinkers and the revealing ways in which they relate to death in their writings.
Soothing the fear
One of the most significant on Yalom’s list of philosophical and literary references is Epicurus. This ancient Greek philosopher was convinced that the first cause of human unhappiness is our ubiquitous fear of death, and that the alleviation of this fear could mean the recovery of an existence that one can enjoy.
Among other things, Epicurus taught that if the soul is immortal, then death means nothing to us, and if it is mortal, then it means that it does not perceive its own status of “dead.” Therefore, why should we fear death when we can never perceive it? In other words, Epicurus said that, “If I am, then death is not. If Death is, then I am not.”
Another way in which Epicurus sought to alleviate the fear of death was the argument of symmetry, namely that our state of death is similar to our state before birth. The idea was reiterated by Vladimir Nabokov, who said that, “…although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).”
Numbness and joy
Yalom’s thesis is that numbing/annihilating the fear of death is enough for life to teach you how to live it more fully than before you were afraid. Distracted by the multitude of truly delightful biographical sources, you almost lose sight of the fact that not fearing death does not necessarily mean enjoying life. And it’s natural: how can you enjoy something (no matter how beautiful) that ends?
Perhaps you will enjoy it only if you feel that you’ve had enough good things in your life. But who can say with honesty and without being influenced by other circumstances (such as old age, with its problems) that how much they lived, loved, and rejoiced is enough? If we are honest, we admit that anything less than eternity cannot satisfy our soul; anything else is too little.
So, if we lose our lives when we fear death, what solutions do we have? Yalom urges us, in essence, to be courageous, gather our rational and cultural resources, and face the enemy; to look death in the eye and live in spite of it. However, Christianity has a totally atypical approach, because it has a completely different frame of reference, which cannot even be included in a category.
Instead of saying, “Look at what you are about to lose, and appreciate what you have,” the Bible says, “Look at Jesus and live!” The invitation is not to look at a natural stage of life (death), but to look at the Person who loves us unimaginably (Jesus) and therefore saves us from the death that Adam and Eve chose.
What we contemplate transforms us
Looking at Jesus may sound reductionist or hermetic to some, but this remedy is repeated fascinatingly often in Scripture in such diverse forms that it can be understood in radically different cultures and times.
The Old Testament sacrificial system was a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice (John 1:29). Man looked at the sacrificed animal and understood that his sins were borne by the sacrificing God. The Jewish people looked at the serpent lifted up in the wilderness (another Christ symbol), and only because of that, God healed them of the punishment He had inflicted on them as a result of disobedience (John 3:14).
Christ Himself says in the New Testament: “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day”(John 6:40). “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish” (John 10:28-29), and, “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
God-inspired Scripture recognises mankind’s thirst for life, and Christ promises not only to quench that thirst, but also that by His influence on the souls of believers, they will help others to come to life as well, for “whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:38).
Still, without denying the value of life, Scripture sees it as a side effect of the communion between God and mankind. When Christ says, “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), He is actually saying that He is the supporter of human life and that, although this support is discreet, in its absence, nothing of what we are and surrounds us could exist.
Life is a gift from God, and if we look at it that way, we also understand why it would be inappropriate to value it more than we value the One who gave it to us. This is so delicately nuanced that, unfortunately, it has been misunderstood a tragic number of times. But that doesn’t mean it’s less important; it’s just very, very difficult to convey.
“By beholding we become changed—It is a law both of the intellectual and the spiritual nature that by beholding we become changed. The mind gradually adapts itself to the subjects upon which it is allowed to dwell. It becomes assimilated to that which it is accustomed to love and reverence,” wrote American author, Ellen White, in the 19th century. But her words were an echo of Scripture.
“We all,” said Paul, “who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). But what does “glory” mean? It is the mission of each and every one of us to find out for ourselves and to be transformed by what we discover.
Alina Kartman majored in Communications and Public Relations, but opted for a career in journalism. Having published more than 1,500 pieces of writing over her 13 years of media activity, Alina has senior editorial experience. She is part of the team who advanced semneletimpului.ro, the platform for the Signs of the Times magazine in Romania. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Programs and Investment Management.