From the Dean: Can We Resurrect from Our Death Spirals?

April 17, 2019

Over the past few years there have been many studies on the increasing levels of anxiety and depression in the United States, and the consequences these negative forces are having on our physical and mental health. According to the Center for Disease Control, as just one instance, the nation’s life expectancy has declined for the second year in a row in 2018. Drug overdoses, chronic liver disease, and suicide are the primary causes for the uptick.

I was reminded of the negative energy spinning around us this week when friends called with the devastating news that their 23-year-old daughter took her own life and became part of that suicide statistic. Tina was an effervescent child, exceptionally bright and curious. She was born in China, abandoned in a zoo, and adopted by our friends when she was only a few weeks old – one of those miracle stories of a child with a tragic life ahead finding a loving family and the opportunity for a wonderful life. Tina wore a smile easily and hatched big plans for her life at a young age. She finished a degree in international studies with a minor in Arabic in the fall and had spent an extended period studying in the Middle East and traveling the world. She was in the process of applying to work at the State Department, with the hopes of a career in public service.

Few people would have guessed that Tina spent her last few years struggling with anxiety and depression. The magnetic smile on her face in photographs throughout her adolescence and young adulthood did not show the pain she experienced inside. She did therapy and took medication, and her family did everything they could to support her. But, tragically, the pain was too great for her.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death. It is the second leading cause for the ages of 10-34, and the fourth for people 35-54. My extended family system has had its own share of mental illness issues and although I’m familiar with some of the dynamics and mysteries associated with suicide, as I think about the darkness that haunted Tina, I wonder how much the intersecting spirals of death surrounding all of us contributed to her own psychological anguish.

All of us experience smaller deaths, such as broken dreams and homes; failed relationships; loss of jobs; disillusioning behavior by heroines and heroes; betrayal by friends; becoming a victim of crime, and realizing our sense of security is an illusion; financial problems; and the death of family and friends. As a youth and health decline with age, we also face the haunting figure of the Death on our own horizon.

But, Americans are also experiencing large-scale deaths, as institutions and organizations that once knit our common life together have begun to unravel and lose their influence on society. Such spirals of structural death are happening in health care, education, law, business, banking, government, law enforcement, professional sports, entertainment, and international relations … to name just a few. Religious organizations are far from exempt, especially Christian institutions. From the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church and the LGBTQ internecine wars in the United Methodist Church and Episcopal Church, to the Evangelical scandals in mega-churches and television and radio ministries and scandalous voting patterns of believers who have supported candidates that violate basic Christian belief, it seems every denomination is caught in some version of an organizational death spiral.

Perhaps the worldwide shock and grief to the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is just a symptom of this sense institutional deaths in so many aspects of our lives. (If you Google Notre Dame Burning, you get 5.6 million hits!) The Cathedral has been an image of prayer and spirituality, transcendence and beauty, and the power of human imagination in Western culture for more than 850 years. Pope Alexander III laid the foundation stone for Notre Dame 19 years before the birth of Francis of Assisi, and the building has endured wars, plagues, and the rise and fall of civilizations. It has been a steady beacon of the highest ideals of the human race. No wonder so many of us cried and grieved.

We cannot avoid small and large-scale deaths in our lives. One of the great challenges of life is learning how to walk through them. Throughout history, a rich mixture of human and spiritual development helped most people learn to do so with a measure of humility, grace, meaningfulness, and even transcendence. The hallmark of great people and great leaders has often been their skill in maneuvering through their death experiences and transcending them so effectively that energy remains to help others deal with their own small and large deaths. As I think about Tina’s decision to end her life on the altar of mental illness, I find myself wondering about what are the best ways to communicate a sense of hope, promise and the possibility of transcending death in all the forms it visits upon us.

The ancients had a lot to say about dying and death, but it is only in the past 50 years that serious work has occurred in understanding these forces in contemporary terms. In 1969, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross did seminal research exploring the process of dying in her book, On Death and Dying, which proposed five distinct stages of letting go of life. In 1974, the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for proposing a theory about the psychological dynamics involved in our mortality. Becker’s insightful and complicated book, The Denial of Death, argues that the human instinct to deny death is more than a coping skill. It unleashes psychic energy that motivates us to create personal and social “immortality projects,” something that leads to great accomplishments but also can have unintended dark sides that come with denial. 

 

The Ernest Becker Foundation, which is located in Seattle, tries to build on the anthropologist’s insights, something Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry tried to assist by once hosting the foundation’s annual conferences.

 

 

The work of Kübler-Ross and Becker launched new research, educational initiatives and health care practices around the issues of our mortality. Their work inspired more open conversations, advances in palliative care, and important movements like hospice. Meanwhile, a growing body of literature in the field of “organizational life cycles” has attempted to discover structural patterns that are a corollary to Kübler-Ross stages and Becker’s identification of the human tendency to deny death.

These modern discussions of death and dying seem like pioneering research, but they are actually late arrivals from a historical perspective. In addition to ancient philosophical thought on mortality, religions have specialized in helping people make sense of dying and death. Every major religious tradition has expertise in matters of death. The Christian liturgical season of Lent, which is just concluding, ends during Holy Week, a multi-day, annual reflection on the last hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The readings, music, rituals, and symbols of most of the liturgies are designed to make sure that Christians of every era never forget the power of suffering and death over life and their conviction that God, in the person of Jesus, participated in it.

Though most skilled at small deaths, about 130 years ago Christians started giving the larger-scale deaths more serious attention. In the late 19th century, American Protestant leaders organized reform movements in response to rampant municipal corruption. These reform efforts gave birth to the Social Gospel movement, with theologians like Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbush establishing a theological language for faith-based initiatives to change society in the early part of the 20th century. At roughly the same time, the Catholic Church began its formal social justice literary tradition with Pope Leo XXIII’s 1891encyclical, Rerum Novarum, an international document defending workers’ rights during a period of bare-knuckle, corrupt and unregulated capitalism.

These Protestant and Catholic approaches to thinking theologically about social, political, economic and cultural institutions added responsibilities to the life of faith – an obligation to work at re-making the world’s institutions and organizations. Other religious traditions have had similar evolutionary perspectives, and religious traditions are now an effective partner in most efforts to re-imagine and re-make the world. Unfortunately, this commitment has proven difficult and complicated to operationalize, especially as religious organizations go through their own distracting death spirals.

As Mark Wild explores in Renewal: Liberal Protestants and the American City after World War II, support for the Social Gospel movement went into decline in the first half of the 20th century. After the war, many Protestant leaders tried to reclaim a sense of Christian mission that included changing the world, though it ended up emphasizing urban renewal efforts. Catholic Social Justice: Our Best Kept Secret, co-authored by Tacoma-born Jesuit Peter Henriot, SJ, was first published in 1985, has gone through four revisions, and is still in print. It tells a similar story of the Catholic heritage’s struggle to broaden its mission to respond to structural issues, not just personal ones, and the challenges of keeping that vision alive.

Death is omnipresent in creation. Yet, every year nature reminds us that re-birth is always with us, too. Emily Dickinson describes this poignantly in her poem: A Light Exists in Spring.

 

A Light exists in Spring

Not present on the Year …

A Color stands abroad

On Solitary Fields

That Science cannot overtake

But Human Nature feels.

 

Dickinson recognized that the scientific method can help us explain the processes of nature’s recurring explosion of life from death. But, it cannot ultimately grasp the depth of its’ meaning. The sentient human can, however, in an intuitive way because the patterns of re-birth and regeneration are woven into the fabric of creation.

 

It waits upon the Lawn,

It shows the furthest Tree

Upon the furthest Slope you know

It almost speaks to you.

 

Then as Horizons step

Or Noons report away

Without the Formula of sound

It passes and we stay –

 

A quality of loss

Affecting our Content

As Trade had suddenly encroached

Upon a Sacrament.

 

For Dickinson, Light signifies a special moment of awareness of the power and wonder of creation. As the Light fades, she recognizes that we also lose something special, an experience of oneness with the rhythm of life and death and rebirth. The Mystery of life coming from death is experienced, and understood, but on a visceral level. When we lose it, it is almost as if “Trade,” or some kind of business transaction, is conducted right in the middle of a sacramental moment.

In the Christian tradition, Holy Week does not end with the suffering and death of Jesus. It concludes with stories of his resurrection, a theological concept that is related to themes of nature’s rebirth but is not the same. Resurrection is a belief in God’s ultimate power to transcend the process of death itself. Beginning with the Easter Vigil, Christians enter the Easter season with a message as clear as the one in Lent: death may surround us with inevitability, in our personal and organizational lives, but it doesn’t have the last word. The fires in parish severely damaged Notre Dame Cathedral, it appears the foundation held and the building will rise again, with more than $700 million donated within 24 hours.

At times of death, especially at times of death spirals like our own, each of us needs a hospice caretaker and a midwife inside of us. The hospice worker must assist in the many dying processes we are experiencing, ministering to our experiences of loss, grief, and fear of what comes next. Meanwhile, the midwife must identify and assist in the birthing of new life that is trying to come into the world, whether it is in our personal or our organizational lives. Because we often do not know where or how new life is coming, the midwife in us needs the eyes, ears, hearts and spiritual insight to recognize new life forms as they begin to appear.

As I enter Holy Week and begin the rhythmic liturgical pattern of Christianity’s annual reflection on life, death, and resurrection, I very much feel the “passing” of the Light that Tina reflected in the world, and the “quality of loss” she leaves behind, to use Dickinson’s metaphors. But, I take hope in the Easter conviction that death doesn’t get the last word, and trust in the promise that she has been midwifed into a new form of life, one in which the Light has cast out all the darkness that haunted her.

More importantly, I hope and pray for her parents and brother can do the same.