A common response I get back about that claim is that people don't report consciously fearing death. And if people aren't fearing death--at least consciously--how can I claim that this fear is interfering with their ability to love others fully and freely?
As you know, if you've read the book, I tend to answer these sorts of questions by analyzing neurotic rather than basic anxiety in our relationship to death. That is, our fear of death is often experienced unconsciously and neurotically, mainly when we are thinking about what makes our life worthwhile, meaningful and significant, the things that feed into and prop up our self-concept and self-esteem.
And yet, we also struggle with basic anxiety--worries about physical survival--even in affluent parts of the world. True, we don't worry about being killed. But we do worry about becoming depleted, exhausted and used up. It's hard to make room for others in our lives because we have no margin. We feel that if we "add one more thing" to an "already full plate" we'll be pushed too far, pushed over the edge.
And these worries, if you ponder it, are expressions of death anxiety. We are worried that we don't have the resources to carry on or forward. And that fear--a depletion of vital resources like time and energy--is rooted in survival concerns.
And these fears, I contend, undermine our ability to love. We don't love freely or fully because we feel we'll be used up and depleted.
I bet you've experienced this fear. For example, if you've ever felt called to share your possessions with those in need you quickly encounter the basic anxieties associated with self-preservation and survival.
Because as we all know, the material needs in the world are so enormous that when we encounter them we begin to balk at the demands they place upon us. Just how much should I give and share to house the homeless or feed the hungry? Children starved to death today and I bought a $4 drink at Starbucks. Should I not have given that money away?
And this is what we all know: once we start asking questions like these they never stop. There is always something more we could have given, some other sacrifice we might have made. So where do we draw the line?
I am put in mind here of the last scene from the movie Schindler’s List. After saving over 1,100 Jews by keeping them in his factory Oskar Schindler laments at the end of the war:
“I could have gotten more out. I could have got more…If I had made more money. I threw away so much money…I didn’t do enough…This car. Why did I keep this car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. They would at least have given me one. One more person…I could have got one more person. And I didn’t. I didn’t.”One more person. I think any compassionate person in a world of hunger and homelessness can identify with Schindler’s lament. This sharing with others is no easy thing. How far do we go? How far do we go in sharing, in laying our lives down for others?
On the surface sharing doesn’t seem to illustrate the connection between love and death. But the attendant anxieties about our own well-being—If I keep giving will there be enough for me, for my family?—in the face of sacrificial sharing quickly reveal the connection.
This is a point powerfully made by the theologian Arthur McGill. According to McGill, when we tell others and ourselves to practice a life of love we often fail to point out the consequences of love. Love is costly. McGill explains:
[The love which is proclaimed in many churches] carefully disregards the outcome of love. These churches speak of love as helping others, but they ignore what helping others does to the person who loves. They ignore the fact that love is self-expenditure, a real expending, a real losing, a real deterioration of the self.I don't have any easy answers here. I don't know where to draw the lines in response to Schindler's lament.
…Too often in our churches we hear the gospel of love without the gospel of need. Too often we hear the lie that to love is to help others without this help having any effect upon ourselves.
But I think I know these two things.
First, you might claim that you don't fear death, but once you start loving others you'll quickly find out that you do.
And second, love is very much about our ability to transcend that fear.