Schindler's Lament: Love, Sacrifice and Death

In my book The Slavery of Death I argue that our fear of death is the greatest obstacle to love.

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.

…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.
I don't have any easy answers here. I don't know where to draw the lines in response to Schindler's lament.

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.

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9 thoughts on “Schindler's Lament: Love, Sacrifice and Death”

  1. Hi Richard

    I really like some of the things psychotherapist Dan Hughes has to say on these themes. He coined the term "feel and deal" to describe the human ability to experience strong negative emotions that others may elicit in us (e.g. through aggression or selfishness) but also to hold these feelings enough in check to meet the emotional needs of the other - to empathise, validate, contain, attune etc.

    Having abandoned the term 'love' a few years back, he reclaims this term in a book published about a year back and defines this as "a state of openness to another person [which] competes in our brains and bodies with closed, self-centred states". He frames this in evolutionary terms - fight, flight and freeze responses mediated by the smart vagal system which connects our bodies to our higher thought processes via the limbic system - but I also think it provides a great psychological analogue to the more spiritual themes you explore here.

  2. When I was a legalist in my early twenties I hurt a friend who was studying to be a Methodist minister. I invited him over for dinner, then proceeded to try to convert him.

    When I was an agnostic in my mid thirties, I was very critical of a young Christian woman who was sharing with a group her charismatic experiences, hurting her deeply.

    Happenings from two different sides of the fence; yet, on looking back on them, from the same fear.

    I often lift up to these two good people my plea for forgiveness, hoping that somehow they come to hear it.

  3. I read "The Slavery of Death" with much appreciation last year, but felt that even more fundamental than the fear of death was loss of control (which, of course, death produces). I did write a post exploring this - from my particular point of view of a panentheist mystic - one side effect of which vision is the elimination of fear of death at anything beyond a purely reactive "lizard brain" kind of level (I don't like that terminology much, but it serves in this case). I'd be interested in your thoughts.

    Incidentally, can I take the opportunity to thank you for your blog? You are far and away the most interesting speculative theologian I've come across.

  4. Not too long ago I attended a little workshop whose theme was "When Helping Hurts." For us helper junkies It seems some sort of balance has to be sought. Some of us have a hard time with the guilt factor when we make such attempts. Self preservation (the depletion factor) is a tough urge to negotiate sensibly and sensitively. Your blog could provide an appropriate intro. to a new study of James our Church's Soujourners class is beginning. Perhaps James' exhortation to pray for wisdom in a mode of full-throttled trust is not a bad place to start.

  5. For me, Jesus addresses the essence of this problem in the gospels when He says, "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it," and, even more concretely, with the admonition to "sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me." And, in that regard, I think every one of us is falling short every day. Which at least gives us something to work on.

  6. Thank you for this post, Richard. I don't consider myself a terribly charitable person, but i do take a couple hours a week to help an elderly person who is basically a shut-in and has no family. I can't tell you how often I think to myself: "I have better things to do. I'm young. I have my future to think about."

    Unconscious fear of death definitely had something to do with it, but I would add that cultural pressure also tells us that looking out for number one is paramount. Caring about someone even when it costs you is seen as unhealthy and detrimental to your own personal goals.

  7. This post is so helpful and useful - you've so clearly captured something I've been feeling my way around for a few years, and it is so satisfying and inspiring to see it laid out so clearly. Thank you! I really appreciate your take on this.

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