For Ernest Becker, the idea of transference is central to understanding the human condition. We are fallible and finite, destined to death and our works are destined to destruction. In order to escape these bleak, nihilistic feelings, humanity much find a person or object to which we can transfer our fear of death. A parent, so to speak, who can quell our fears by the might of their power. Once we have this person or object in place, we can find stability in knowing that our life can live on through them.
God, for instance, is an object/person where humanity places their fears, believing that He can enable meaning for life, rendering death meaningless. So, we ignore the harsh reality of death and dying through our conception of God. God enables our defense mechanism of transference. Which, I might add, isn’t an evil per se, but — like everything — can have unintended and hurtful consequences.
The other factor, says Becker, in understanding the human condition is repression. Repression, in the context of death denial, means the attempt to gain power as an immortality project, thus repressing our weakness in mortality. We can repress our fears, our insecurities, our finitude by finding building our own everlasting kingdom or symbol. And once our kingdom is established, we can live on, albeit, through our legacy of might, thus repressing the mortality reality.
Repression and transference are opposites: one seeks power for oneself (Becker and others call this “Eros”), while the other seeks to embed oneself in another (Becker calls this “Agape”). But, the two come together in perfect unison when we greet the bereaved family at a viewing and say something that both attempts to repress the reality of death and make it all better through religious verbiage.
The reason comfort clichés can be so offensive is that those who are experiencing grief have had their walls of repression and transference broken. They are sensitive to the reality of the human condition and the loneliness that comes with it. And here you come, attempting to minimalize their fears and pain with a cliché that’s meant more so to help you feel good than give real encouragement to the family.
When people use comfort cliches, they are often more concerned with comforting themselves than comforting the bereaved.
And when you’re throwing clichés around as a defense mechanism, the bereaved will often know … and this, my friends, is what they hear:
I don’t want to hear your story. I don’t want your pains to become a part of my life. My life is painful enough. It doesn’t need to be disturbed by your story.
Man, I can’t imagine your pain. In fact, I might be able to imagine your pain. Honestly, I don’t want to imagine your pain.
Your grief is your grief; it’s not mine. I can’t walk this dark path with you. Honestly, though, when I think about it, I could walk this path with you, I just don’t want to. My life is good right now. I like my view and I don’t like yours.
Here, instead of hearing you out and walking with you, I’m going to make myself feel good. It’s important that I still see myself as a good person. I’m not heartless, so let me make you a cake and leave it at your door.
Let me send you a card.
Let give you a Bible verse.
I think I read something about how time heals grief. Let me tell you that.
Let me tell you how God has plans in this death.
I need to tell you something, give you something so that I can feel good about myself. I can’t feel guilty, so I’ll half-ass comfort you so that I can feel good while you feel like shit.
“God is love.”
“Time will heal your wounds.”
“You can get through this.”
“You are still young … you can have more children.”
Defense mechanisms. All. In the Spector of death, we use them too much.
If we want to be good communicators with those experiencing death and dying, we need to recognize both the repression and transference in our own lives and silence them for the sake of the bereaved. Instead of denying the reality of death, accept it and listen to the grieving who are walking through it. Instead of trivializing death as something “God has overcome”, be willing to enter the loneliness that comes with grief. Enter the holy space of holy Saturday, and – at the risk of your faith – accept doubt and silence as real possibilities.
If you can’t do this … if you’re unwilling to do this, if you’re set on denying the reality of death, then do yourself and the bereaved a favor, and just stay away from it and those it’s touching.
Last week we had a moving funeral.
One of the most moving I’ve ever worked.
It was the funeral of a young man who overdosed at the age of 29.
Funerals for the young are usually tragic in nature. Funerals for the overdosed are extra tragic, cause they not only cause grief, but too often cause guilt in those that are left behind. “We could have stopped this … we could have done more” acts as an undefined, unanswerable, gnawing parasite.
Grief and guilt all at once.
These kinds of deaths also act as a sign. A road sign for the friends of the deceased that are going down a similar path. A road sign that states, “This is death. This is where you are heading. Stop.”
Tears are shed at these funerals from eyes that haven’t shed a tear since their youth. Strong men who had weathered intense storms of difficulty are rendered to tears by the powerful reality of death. Shoulders sulk. Talkative mouths are rendered speechless. Pride is humbled.
Denial. Thoughts of, “This isn’t happening. I was just talking to him last week” are crushed when the viewing line slowly moves up to the casket, and you see the lifeless body of your friend, brother, sister laying cold, eyes closed, flesh tones painted on, face paled, laying forever in a coffin.
“This shouldn’t be happening” all of a sudden becomes “this has happened.”
There was an instance at this 29 year old man’s funeral that exemplified everything that viewing the body does to denial.
The viewing was supposed to end at 2:00 p.m., and when 2’ o clock came along the family told us to wait because “there’s a friend that needs to see him before you shut the lid … he’s two minutes away.”
Two minutes turned to ten minutes, and still no sign of the friend. We never want to push the family and say, “well, it’s been ten minutes and it’s time to get started.” At the same, though, we try to keep everybody conscience of the situation. So, I suggested, “Can you call your friend on his cell phone to see where he’s at?”
Just about that time, the friend came through the door.
He didn’t actually come on his own initiative … he was being pushed up to the casket … maybe even pulled up by a couple of his friends. And he was resisting their force just enough to let his pushing and pulling friends know that he didn’t want to view the body, but not enough to totally resist their insistence. He was in denial. As he got closer to the casket, his body was facing the coffin, but his head was turned away, his jaw tightly shut in defiance and his fists clenched as though he was ready for a fight.
And he was fighting.
He was fighting. Fighting loss. Death makes those that are left into different people. We’re meant for community … we are most human in relationships; and when those relationships are broken, part of our person dies with the death of another.
Fighting against the loss of love. Love needs another. With the other dies, part of love dies with them.
Death has a way of highlighting everything that makes us human by taking those things away.
He was fighting until he got to the casket, saw his friend and forfeited his battle. The clenched fists opened and started touching his dead friend’s chest, his head that was turned away, was now fixated on the face of his deceased friend’s. His tightly shut jaw was now open, gasping in air as his body was shaking. Then he started to weep. His body collapsed onto the body of his deceased friend, and what had been fighting denial now became a full embrace.
Embracing death is like being born again … it helps us see life in a whole new light.
I was glad we waited for him. This was his moment.
Death brings out the religiosity in all of us. If you’re a reader of my blog, you may realize that I’m rather critical of the whole God as Cosmic Santa Claus motif. AND, I’m rather critical of using God as the Grand Band Aid who fixes everything, including death. Somethings have no answer. Some valleys are dark.
I’m not the only one who is critical of the “God as crutch”. Freud, Marx et al; as well as a few Christians like Pete Rollins and, one of my favorite authors, Richard Beck are also critical of using God as a means to assuage our existential turmoil.
In The Authenticity of Faith, Beck suggest five strong beliefs for the believer who uses God as a defense mechanism / crutch / Grand Band Aid.
Here they are:
1. Special Protection: In the face of a hostile universe, the belief that God will especially protect the believer (and loved ones) from misfortune, illness, or death. The universe is existentially tamed.
2. Special Insight: In the face of difficult life decisions, the belief that God will provide clear guidance and direction. God’s guidance reduces the existential burden of choice.
3. Special Destiny: In the face of a life where meaning is fragile, the belief that God has created a special purpose for one’s life, a destiny that makes life intrinsically meaningful.
4. Divine Solicitousness: The belief that the omnipotent God is constantly available and interested in aiding the believer, even with the mundane and trivial. God is an eternal servant, our cosmic butler.
5. Denial of Randomness: In a life full of random, tragic, and seemingly meaningless events, the belief that God’s purpose and plan is at work. No event, however horrific or tragic, is existentially confusing or disconcerting. All is going according to plan.
Pages 158 – 159
These beliefs are meant to step in and remove or reduce the anxiety of the loss of our assumptive world. Together, they can form our crutch.
Do you use ALL of the above beliefs? Do you use SOME of the above beliefs?
The following are large-scale cultural attitudes towards death.
These are taken verbatim from “Death and Dying, Life and Living”:
1. Tame Death: Death is familiar and simple; thatis, it is regarded as inevitable and not attempt is made to evade it. Persons who are dying typically calmly await their deaths, usually surrounded by loved ones and members of the community, all of whom wait peacefully for the end. In other words, death is a public event. A major focus of attention is the community; it is deeply affected by the loss of one of its necessary participants. Death is also seen as a sort of sleep; either one is awakened at some point to eternal bliss, or one remains eternally asleep.
2. Death of the self: The focus of attention is on the one who dies. Death produces great anxiety in that person because it is believed that one is either rewarded or punished in his or her future state. Death of the self involves a final testing period, and what one does at this moment determines what will happen to one after death (and indeed the meaning of one’s whole life). Several religious traditions have some such belief. For instance, some Jews believe that it is important at the moment of death to recite the Shema. Muslims are taught that invoking the Divine Name at the moment of death can be salvific. And some Buddhists hold that chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha at this point in one’s life will ensure that one will end up in the Pure Land after death. In the West, this attitude once led to the development of a formal ares moriendi, an art of dying well.
3. Remote and Imminent death: One’s attitude toward death is basically highly ambivalent. Death is viewed as a wholly natural event (not a supernatural one), but still great effort is made to keep it at a distance. It is both natural and dangerous, inviting and repelling, beautiful and to be feared.
4. Death of the other: Here, the main focus of attention is on the survivors. Death primarily involves the breaking of relationships. For survivors, it results in an intolerable separation from the one who dies. Feelings and behaviors may go nearly out of control (wailing, keening, throwing oneself in the grave, etc.). For the one who dies, death is primarily a period of waiting to be rejoined with loved ones in some other state.
5. Death denied / forbidden death: Death is seen as being dirty or indecent (even “pornographic). Thus, it is offensive to die in public. Dying persons are therefore more or less isolated from the rest of the community. The very fact that the person is dying is denied, both to that person and to those around her or him. Emotions, both before and after the death are to be kept hidden, and huts mourning may be seen as morbid or even pathological. (Pages 55 -56)
Here’s three questions:
Which attitude most describes your personal attitude towards death?
Which attitude are you least familiar with?
Which attitude do you think best describes the West?
Last week Alise Wright hosted my thoughts on how death can lead to rebirth.
I first developed respect/admiration for Alise as a person when I read her guest post at Rachel Held Evan’s blog entitled, “Surviving a Conversation with an Atheist” and her follow up post entitled, “Free Will and Calvinist Atheists.” Since reading those two pieces — and many thereafter — I’ve come to not only respect her as a person, but as a writer.
Today, I’m pleased to feature her. And if you get a chance, give her a follow on twitter, a like on her facebook page and, since this is her birthday month, you can help fulfill her birthday wish of donating $370 dollars to Nuru International.
I love a good magician, or as GOB Bluth would say, a good illusionist. Watching someone perform an illusion can be really entertaining. I enjoy trying to figure out how they did it, trying to find the bit of misdirection, trying to suss out just where the quarter came from. Even though I know that the whole thing is a trick, I find the show to be entertaining.
Optical illusions can be really interesting. Is the picture an old lady or a young woman? Is the ballerina spinning clockwise or counter-clockwise? Which one of these lines is longer? The hidden images, the visual gags, the hiding of truth in plain sight – all of this delights me.
I think many of us enjoy these things because we like the idea of magic. We want to think that in our ordinary lives there is a chance to find something extraordinary. That hidden away in the common there can be something that is uncommon. That perhaps if we look hard enough, we can find some hidden message in our humdrum lives.
The thing is, most of our lives are pretty dull. We get up, do the same jobs, listen to the same songs on the radio, speak with the same people about the same topics. We suffer the same hurts. Our hearts are broken in the same ways.
In the midst of this, we create our own illusions. When asked how we’re doing, we respond, “Fine.” We go to church and wear a smile that masks our pain. We answer questions with the platitudes that we’ve been taught, but that we don’t understand and maybe don’t even believe any more. We become skillful magicians, hiding the negative, the ugly, the confusing.
Exposing our true selves can frightening. We risk additional pain or rejection when we show our secrets. We can be mocked for suggesting that the status quo might be wrong. The illusions protect us.
But they aren’t real. Authenticity, for all of the potential heartache, allows us to connect on a deeper level with people. When we’re honest, we give others permission to be honest as well.
Perhaps it’s time for all of us to become disillusioned.