When I was about ten, my Christmas Day was brought to a stunned physical halt by a wave of feelings which took me years to articulate. It was as though a congenital melancholy had forced its way into my attention. It bubbled up every few months for years, a kind of sub-clinical depression, which I finally understood as an inability to see any point to life. Some instinct kept me walking and running, which probably prevented my being overwhelmed. And for my final three years at university, I rode a pushbike, often hundreds of kilometres a week, and this seemed to drive the whole agony underground.
About a decade after that first onslaught, I stopped taking the direct route from my university college out to the Waite Institute. Instead, I would ride up Greenhill Road each morning, speed down from Mt Lofty to the Crafers exit on the new freeway, and then ride down the freeway to The Waite. This involved a short climb out of Crafers, after which I was on competitive terms with the rush-hour traffic. I used to count the number of cars I could pass between the Eagle on the Hill, still a pub in those days, and the Old Tollgate at the bottom. My record stood at 24 cars.
I raced into the Devil’s Elbow one morning, a well-deserved name, holding way above the recommended speed, with cars all around me, and both the front and back wheel began to aquaplane. I was very, very good at downhill racing, so maybe the fact that I was on exactly the right line for that nasty corner, and that I had my weight in exactly the right place over the bike, meant that it slid perfectly through the corner for a second or two, found traction, and I accelerated away past the car in front, as though it had all been planned. Or maybe it was plain, dumb luck.
I never again came down that hill quite so fast, for in that second or so, I understood for the first time that I will die. And as much as I could often see no point to life, I very clearly understood at that moment, that I did not want to die.
In between these two events, or similar experiences, lies all the glory, the pain, and that evil we call violence, of human existence. Here we flourish, know joy, know pain, are diminished, and die. And if we are honest, we know that for many, many people, joy and flourishing are almost unknown, and suffering is the norm. Yet we persist.
If I understand them correctly, Earnest Becker and the Terror Management Theorists who have followed him, would suggest our need to find a meaning for life, and to make something of it, is driven by our fear of death. The Little White Dog in our house isn't quite so bothered about meaning; she lives much more in the moment than I am able. I make a life, build a purpose, hope to leave a legacy of some sort. It's all an unconscious attempt to make an end run around death, according to Becker. Timothy Keller, who lives with the "dire survival statistics for pancreatic cancer" quotes John Calvin:
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.
Our own death is incomprehensible. We can't really imagine something that we have never experienced. I officiate at funerals, have prayed with people who are dying, and blessed the bodies of the dead. But it's not remotely similar to contemplating my own dying. I can imagine the events leading up to my death, but nothing more. And, if I'm honest, I know that even the little imagining I can do is does not come near the reality of what will come.
I know this because I have felt the wave of relief which follows seeing a blood red toilet bowl, and then remembering last night's roast beetroot. And have known the miserable grief that comes when there was no beetroot and we wait a week or two for scans, imagining the worst. When our death, or likely death, becomes unavoidable, all our pretentions to faith or stoic acceptance of our inevitable faith will be tested with far more rigour than even our harshest critic can manage.
The Devil's Elbow of life, which always seeks to send us off the road, is this bent-back-on-itself conundrum: Meaning is hard to come by, and when everything is skidding out of control, our pretensions to meaning prove to be even more fragile than we imagined. All we can do is hold on for the ride, and trust the goodness of the Creator in whatever may come.
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