Felix was a big old cat who'd been on the farm nearly as long as me. We found him asleep on the bonnet of the ute one afternoon as we piled in to go down to Uncle Des' farm, a couple of miles away. He ignored us. "He'll get off," Dad said. Felix stayed where he was until we rumbled over the grid out onto the track. Then, instead of jumping off, he hopped over the roof and curled up in the back of the ute.
There are two things to note about those old FE Holden utes. The first is that by 1965, they were old. It took half a mile before we'd chugged up to 50mph down near Flavel's gate. The second is that there was a bit of a ledge where the door bulged out from the glass in the window. Felix knew about this, and when it became too windy for comfort in the back, he walked along this bulge with the intention of coming in the window behind Dad's back. This is where my sister and I saw him, just as he discovered that, for some unaccountable reason, Dad had the window shut.
The cat made a rapid assessment of his position, and very wisely decided there was no room to turn around. He carefully backed up past the rear window, and hopped backwards down into the tray, a manoeuvre which gives "backing down" a whole new meaning. It says something for my Dad being cool under pressure that, despite the panicked squawks of us kids, he brought the ute to a gentle stop so that the cat was not dislodged. It then joined us in the cabin with that disdain only an indignant cat can manage.
Cats are smarter than we are. For one thing, they are sure footed enough to think little of walking down the side of a speeding utility. But more than this, when they see that things have not worked out, they have no hesitation in backing down in order not to die. You've seen this happen. A cat will stand its ground for a while, wailing at the other bloke, but if we come outside to investigate the ruckus, they back off at high speed. Us? Not so much.
Humans make a virtue of not backing down. Which is odd, when you think about it, because among cats, and among us, backing down, or not, all comes from the same thing. We don't let people do whatever they want, or ride roughshod over us because, at the bottom of it all, if you let that happen, you might die. "Let them get away with this, and next thing you know, we'll be starving." So we push back, just as a cat does when another feline intrudes. It's part of the whole evolutionary death avoidance imperative which drives us animals, whether Felis catus or Homo sapiens. Our species would not be here if it were otherwise.
The problem for Homo sapiens is that we don't only do death avoidance. We are in denial about death. As Calvin said,
We undertake all things as if we were establishing immortality for ourselves on earth. If we see a dead body, we may philosophize briefly about the fleeting nature of life, but the moment we turn away from the sight the thought of our own perpetuity remains fixed in our minds.
We are so determined about this, and at such a deep level, that we deny that we deny death.
People have told me this universal death denial does not exist; not for them anyway. But when death comes close to us, things seem to be different. My cousin exhibited the superb laid back style of our family when he said to the path lab, "I appreciate you contacting me so urgently, but it would have been great if you could have told me when I wasn't driving a 16 tonne truck down Port Road in the rush hour." In his own wry way, he was exhibiting the same honesty about how the threat of death shakes us, as Tim Keller, who says in the same article from which I took Calvin's words
A significant number of believers in God find their faith shaken or destroyed when they learn that they will die at a time and in a way that seems unfair to them... A belief in God and an afterlife does not become spontaneously comforting and existentially strengthening. Despite my rational, conscious acknowledgment that I would die someday, the shattering reality of a fatal diagnosis provoked a remarkably strong psychological denial of mortality. Instead of acting on Dylan Thomas’s advice to “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” I found myself thinking, What? No! I can’t die. That happens to others, but not to me. When I said these outrageous words out loud, I realized that this delusion had been the actual operating principle of my heart...
He notes that some folk believe
the material world came into being on its own and that there is no supernatural world we go to after death. Death, in this view, is simply nonexistence, and therefore, as the writer Julian Barnes has argued, nothing to be frightened of. These ideas are items of faith that can’t be proved, and people use them as Barnes does, to stave off fear of death. But I’ve found that nonreligious people who think such secular beliefs will be comforting often find that they crumple when confronted by the real thing.
This is why we go to the wall about things that really don't matter so much. It's why we split with our family, or begin a crusade which destroys our congregation. Pride is, especially at its stubborn end, our unrecognised fear of death. Take the person who decides the minister must go. "If we let them get away with this kind of idea it will change everything which matters about our congregation”—read: It will weaken our tribe, the group who guarantee our life and survival—"What will happen them?"—read: I might die.
Far fetched? Why then, are we afraid?
The one who fears death is a slave and subjects themself to everything in order to avoid dying... But the one who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed 'man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [Job 2.4] and if a person should decide to disregard this, whose slave are they then? The person who fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For the one who disregards their own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to the one 'who counteth not even their life dear,' says blessed Paul [Acts 20.24]. (John Chrysostom, quoted here, but with the language made gender neutral. See also here.)
One way to describe the way of Jesus of Nazareth is that he calls us to become Human, rather than be merely Homo sapiens. He calls us to practise a life which overcomes our fear of death, he calls us to learn to back down. Rather than staring down our competitors, we should learn to stare down death.
This is no easy thing. Compassion and justice are the two core aspects of a Jesus modelled life. But to be compassionate means to be vulnerable, which means someone will take advantage of us. To be just means to tell truth to power, which means people will push back and perhaps even kill us. Think of the ceaseless persecution of Bernard Collaroy and Witness K, or the 'disappearance' of Juanita Nielsen.
But the little deaths (if we are lucky) which come from seeking to live justly and compassionately seem to me to be remarkably humanising. The deepest and most settled people I know, the ones I want to be like, are very often older folk, who also seem to have learned a lot about how to back down. I take it that they have become a little less afraid of death, and this is what makes the difference. The hope is that when the final death looms close, living justly and compassionately may prove to have been a kind of practice for dying. But there's a reason they call the way of Jesus faith. None of this can be proved, except by living it. There's no going back when we come to the end to try another way of being. There's no backing down then.
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