Philosophically, I'm an existentialist. Always have been. And as an existentialist my main preoccupation is finding meaning in the face of death.
I think about death all the time. I enjoy cemeteries. Much of my research is about death. I read books and poetry about death.
You would think that all this death awareness would ruin me emotionally. In college it almost did. And in the face of this existential panic I became acutely aware of the fact that believing in life after death was a deeply consoling belief. So powerfully consoling that it seemed almost a trap. This easy little fix, one teeny weeny little belief, could dramatically eliminate the deepest existential terror in the human experience. It just seemed too easy, too neat, too quick, too clean.
So I resolved to do a very peculiar thing. I resolved to keep death in view--constantly, daily. And if you've read a lot of my work on this blog, then you know how I continue to work through the dynamics of holding onto faith while simultaneously refusing to allow faith to repress death anxiety. I try to hold both--faith and death--firmly in view. And why, you might ask, would I intentionally engage in this odd and existentially unsettling activity? Why not let faith eliminate or repress my death anxiety? Because this path of mine is the only way I know of which can assure me that my faith isn't, to use Sartre's term, bad faith, that my faith has nothing to do with repressing death anxiety or awareness.
Still, I have to admit that it is hard to live with death on a day to day basis. So in college I began searching for a way to make death my friend and companion in life. If death and I were going to spend a lot of time together we needed to figure out a way to get along. Once again, George MacDonald helped me.
Many consider At the Back of the North Wind to be MacDonald's masterpiece. It is a fantasy work about a little boy named Diamond. One night Diamond tries to shut a hole in his wall to keep out the howling North Wind. Eventually he (with the help of his mother) succeeds. But the North Wind, manifesting as a beautiful woman, soon appears in Diamond's room asking why he shut her out. So begins Diamond's adventures with the North Wind. As their friendship grows we discover the gentile, beautiful nature of Diamond. We also learn a bit about the North Wind who can be both gentle and harsh. During one adventure Diamond is allowed to see the land at "the back of the North Wind," an idyllic land of peace and beauty. We also come to discover that Diamond is a sickly child and we begin to wonder if the North Wind is his companion for reasons related to his health. Who, exactly, is the North Wind? In the final chapters Diamond pushes the North Wind for answers. Diamond wonders if the North Wind is real or only a dream he's been having. And if the North Wind isn't a dream then who is she?
"I think," said [the North Wind], after they had been sitting silent for a while, "that if I were only a dream, you would not have been able to love me so. You love me when you are not with me, don't you?"Diamond had fallen in love with Death. And Death was, essentially, a friend. Here at the end of the story the North Wind wants to know if Diamond would still be able to see the beauty at the core of the North Wind despite her many terrifying manifestations.
"Indeed I do," answered Diamond, stroking her hand. "I see! I see! How could I be able to love you as I do if you weren't there at all, you know? Besides, I couldn't be able to dream anything half so beautiful all out of my own head; or if I did, I couldn't love a fancy of my own like that, could I?"
"I think not. You might have loved me in a dream, dreamily, and forgotten me when you woke, I daresay, but not loved me like a real being as you love me. Even then, I don't think you could dream anything that hadn't something real like it somewhere. But you've seen me in many shapes, Diamond: you remember I was a wolf once—don't you?"
"Oh yes—a good wolf that frightened a naughty drunken nurse."
"Well, suppose I were to turn ugly, would you rather I weren't a dream then?"
"Yes; for I should know that you were beautiful inside all the same. You would love me, and I should love you all the same. I shouldn't like you to look ugly, you know. But I shouldn't believe it a bit."
"Not if you saw it?"
"No, not if I saw it ever so plain."
"There's my Diamond! I will tell you all I know about it then. I don't think I am just what you fancy me to be. I have to shape myself various ways to various people. But the heart of me is true. People call me by dreadful names, and think they know all about me. But they don't. Sometimes they call me Bad Fortune, sometimes Evil Chance, sometimes Ruin; and they have another name for me which they think the most dreadful of all."
"What is that?" asked Diamond, smiling up in her face.
"I won't tell you that name. Do you remember having to go through me to get into the country at my back?"
"Oh yes, I do. How cold you were, North Wind I and so white, all but your lovely eyes! My heart grew like a lump of ice, and then I forgot for a while."
"You were very near knowing what they call me then. Would you be afraid of me if you had to go through me again?"
"No. Why should I? Indeed I should be glad enough, if it was only to get another peep of the country at your back."
Diamond eventually becomes friends with the narrator of the story who takes us through the final weeks of Diamond's life. Here is the conclusion of the book in the voice of the narrator, MacDonald's own voice:
Happily for me, I was as much interested in metaphysics as Diamond himself, and therefore, while he recounted his conversations with North Wind, I did not find myself at all in a strange sea, although certainly I could not always feel the bottom, being indeed convinced that the bottom was miles away.What a sad way to end a children's story. But the ending is consistent with the theology of the book. Essentially, At the Back of the North Wind is a story about the friendship between Death and a little boy. Death was Diamond's playmate and companion. And he loved her. And in the end he passed through her to get to the land at the back of the North Wind.
"Could it be all dreaming, do you think, sir?" he asked anxiously.
"I daren't say, Diamond," I answered. "But at least there is one thing you may be sure of, that there is a still better love than that of the wonderful being you call North Wind. Even if she be a dream, the dream of such a beautiful creature could not come to you by chance."
"Yes, I know," returned Diamond; "I know."
Then he was silent, but, I confess, appeared more thoughtful than satisfied.
The next time I saw him, he looked paler than usual.
"Have you seen your friend again?" I asked him.
"Yes," he answered, solemnly.
"Did she take you out with her?"
"No. She did not speak to me. I woke all at once, as I generally do when I am going to see her, and there she was against the door into the big room, sitting just as I saw her sit on her own doorstep, as white as snow, and her eyes as blue as the heart of an iceberg. She looked at me, but never moved or spoke."
"Weren't you afraid?" I asked.
"No. Why should I?" he answered. "I only felt a little cold."
"Did she stay long?"
"I don't know. I fell asleep again. I think I have been rather cold ever since though," he added with a smile.
I did not quite like this, but I said nothing.
Four days after, I called again at the Mound. The maid who opened the door looked grave, but I suspected nothing. When I reached the drawingroom, I saw Mrs. Raymond had been crying.
"Haven't you heard?" she said, seeing my questioning looks.
"I've heard nothing," I answered.
"This morning we found our dear little Diamond lying on the floor of the big attic-room, just outside his own door—fast asleep, as we thought. But when we took him up, we did not think he was asleep. We saw that---"
Here the kind-hearted lady broke out crying afresh.
"May I go and see him?" I asked.
"Yes," she sobbed. "You know your way to the top of the tower."
I walked up the winding stair, and entered his room. A lovely figure, as white and almost as clear as alabaster, was lying on the bed. I saw at once how it was. They thought he was dead. I knew that he had gone to the back of the north wind.
At the Back of the North Wind played a critical part in helping me hold onto faith while keeping death close by as friend and companion. Importantly, At the Back of the North Wind isn't triumphalist or death-denying. As you can tell from how the book ends, At the Back of the North Wind is sweet but very sad. And throughout the book the North Wind is often cold, inscrutable, terrifying and horrible. But the book asserts that, at her core, the North Wind is beautiful. She is a friend, a companion, and a doorway. The story is so very sad. Yet so very hopeful.
When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer she came to Texas to get treatment at MD Anderson in Houston. I took off work so I could drive mom to her appointment. And what does a mother and son talk about for five hours driving toward a cancer diagnosis?
As I prepared for the drive, Angie, my good friend at work who is a cancer survivor and received treatment at MD Anderson, tried to prepare me for my time in the hospital. In her experience at MD Anderson, waiting hours and hours for appointments and treatments, she observed that many family members of cancer patients have a difficult time in the waiting rooms. The waiting rooms are full of people at various stages in their battle with cancer. Some are just getting the diagnosis. Some are battling through difficult chemotherapy, their hair gone and faces hollow. Many are at the end of the line, all treatment options now exhausted. Angie wanted to warn me about what I'd see, about the sheer weight of death and sadness in the MD Anderson waiting rooms.
I told Angie not to worry. Facing death wouldn't make me sad. Because it makes me sad every day. Every day I think about how crushingly sad it is for people to pass through the North Wind. To leave behind loved ones, unfinished projects, and life dreams. It's all just so sad.
I might sound morbid, dwelling about death all the time. But I'm not depressive. The overwhelming feeling I have about life is poignancy. A happy sadness. Poignancy is the feeling I have when I tuck my boys in at night. Life is so short and I have no way to know how much time we will have together. It was poignant to drive my mom to MD Anderson. And it was poignant to wait for her during her appointments. I find everything, because the North Wind is with me, poignant. It is poignant to go to work. It is poignant to come home. Emily Dickinson, not surprisingly, captures this feeling with these words:
That it will never come againPoignancy. That is how I feel about life. That is the feeling of my faith experience. And I feel this way because, like Diamond, I've made the North Wind my friend and companion. She makes me sad very often. And sometimes I'm so very afraid of her. But I believe, like Diamond believed, that despite appearances the North Wind is a friend, that she is, in the end, beautiful. I cherish her as my friend because, like it or not, she is my door. And I'm eager to see the back of her, to pass on to that land at the back of the North Wind.
is what makes life so sweet.