Unsee This!

There is an empty billboard on my ride home where the owners have a big sign: Unsee This! The point, of course, is that once we see certain things, we can't unsee them; life is forever different because of what we have seen. Carole Etzler wrote:

Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn't been opened
Sometimes I wish I could no longer see….

just for an hour how sweet it would be
not to be struggling, not to be striving
but just sleep securely in our slavery.

The desire to return to Egypt, as we sometimes put it, is because reality and freedom are not only hard won. It is hard to live within them. They demand much of us.

To be human seems to be to live in terror of both life and death. We have to dumb ourselves down, turn down the volume on our emotions, to even cope with the richness into which we are born. Ernest Becker said

one of the first things a child has to do is to learn to "abandon ecstasy," to do without awe, to leave fear and trembling behind. Only then can we act with a certain oblivious self confidence.... (The Denial of Death pp55)

People carve their names into trees, moan about trivia as they walk through the overwhelming aura of Uluru, smash rock carvings, turn up the sound system in the middle of the desert as they unload a truck full of unnecessary camping material: anything to drown out the overwhelming ecstasy of existence. Listen again when you hear a gauche or off-key response to something beautiful or profound. Do you hear the fear?

At the other end of life, is the other fear, the fear of dying. To live with the fear of life and the fear of dying is unbearable. We need more than a dialling down of the volume. We need to create a certain invisibility. We need to create a world which denies death as completely as possible, and for as long as possible.

Folk tell me they are not afraid of death. I cannot believe this. I think we can do a fine job of managing our fear, of sublimating it, controlling it, forgetting it, but it is still there. Richard Beck once described the great give way of our fear:

we … struggle with basic anxiety− worries about physical survival−  even in affluent parts of the world… we…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.

Beck concludes...

… you might claim that you don't fear death, but once you start loving others you'll quickly find out that you do.  

We are afraid. And once we see that we are afraid of death, we can't easily unsee it. As I have grown older, it has become impossible to unsee.

And here there is a conundrum. To see the world as it really is should be a freedom. It means we are not living according to a lie about how the world is. It should mean we are less likely to have some unseen elephant in the room sit on us. We could expect, therefore, to be happier, and healthier.  But once we see a great billboard loom up on our psychological commute home saying, "You are dying!" we often feel great grief and fear, not freedom. Our travelling back and forth becomes burdened and painful as we pass, yet again, by that sign we cannot unsee.

This means we live dissonant with our world, which measures health, success, worth, and trustworthiness, by our equanimity. It rewards those who are even-keeled, untroubled, up-beat and positive. And fears those who mourn, who grieve, whose faces betray doubt and struggle, and who fail to project a life at ease with itself. We become dis-eased, and society hates us for this. And perhaps we have seasons of great ease, times when we have an aura of peace around us, and many feel judged and afraid of that.

Periodically, our ability to see the billboard on the side of the road— "Which billboard is that?" asks a person who drives the same route to work. "There is no billboard there!"— means that we discover that there is an update. Men have been out with their ladders and glue buckets, and added a whole list of large print implications about the fact of our dying and living which had not yet occurred to us. Indeed there are seasons in life where it seems the billboard has been replaced by one of those giant LED screens which sadistically gives us a daily update to our misery.

And we wonder, if perhaps the fact is that we are the ones with the problem. Perhaps it's not so bad. Perhaps it's just that we are sick, neurotic, or lacking in faith.

The facts are these: We all inherit a world view. We are born into a family and a society who see the world in a particular way. That is where we start. We may tweak this, we may even substantially rewrite their idea of the world, but we have a world view, and it is fundamentally designed to enable us to live by protecting us from the fear of life and death. Human beings who cannot manage this "vital lie" (Becker) simply go mad. Our world view deflects, and channels, and walls off, the glory and the fear into some kind of manageable form, so that we can live.

It is true that we can detect among us folk whose world view is what I call "explorative," and some whose world view seems primarily defensive. An explorative world view seeks to find meaning, and to manage life, by exploring it, and by integrating an ever expanding understanding of the richness, complexity, and terror of life. A defensive world view simply builds up the walls. There is no moral good or bad to this: a person can be born into such terror that their staying alive is a matter of amazement, and should be celebrated.  And such a world view can allow enormous freedom and generosity, as long as life stays within its boundaries: we have probably met wonderful folk who suddenly become hard-line and nasty when an issue threatens their defences.

The point is that even the most enlightened and explorative world view is still defensive. By necessity it is built to allow us to survive, to filter and throttle the flow of information, whether it be joy or terror. It can be overwhelmed as easily as the defensive world view. Indeed, it almost seeks... to be overwhelmed, for it recognises that boundaries and their artificialities exist. Those it appears cope so well, have often actually merely built higher walls to deny the truth of reality.

So when we cannot unsee life and death, when the billboard becomes an undeniable part of our worldview, and when it flashes up a whole new set of implications, and all these flood down upon us, we are just as terrorised as anyone else. It cannot be otherwise; indeed, it may well feel worse, for we have shed the armour, pulled off the "life" jacket that we saw was only a pretence. Suddenly there is a breach in the dam wall, and unmanaged reality is flooding around us. We have to swim for our lives again until we can find a place to stand up, an island of breathing space where we can build some defences, and find and develop some new metaphors to live by, so that we are not washed away by the flood.

The building of new metaphors tells us the truth of new insight. New insight steals our world from us. It changes everything. We live in the grief of a bereavement, for we have died; we have found we are not the person we thought we were. We grieve the death of a loved one, a parent perhaps, for years, and there are moments when such grief, years old, flows as fresh as yesterday. How could we expect less grief around the dying of the person at the centre of our lives?

This is not just words. This is the reality.
The reality is deep grief and fear as we find, yet again, that we are adrift and wondering if we can remain afloat. The reality is abandonment by friends; friends are our allies in walling out the floods, and sometimes allies sense that there is something about us that is pulling down the walls, and run for their lives.
The reality is depression, which comes as the body clamps down on the fear, and disengages us from feeling, whether we like it or not, so that doing anything is an effort.

And the reality is the threat of failure, that great stigma society and its various tribes and churches place as their own defence upon those who refuse to live the lie as they find themselves drowning, and upon those who are no longer to find the energy. We are rejected, which is a kind of dying.

And it can take months for such a flood to subside enough for us to discover that it was, after all, life giving water. In the meantime the water gets in everywhere, leaking into our days, waking us at night, eroding our confidence, weighing down days and weeks so that our tears become part of the flood.

Instinctively, I pray that you would be spared this. And wish to be spared of it myself, except that my deeper instinct is that it is a part of my baptism. This is the dying to new life which we speak about so easily, yet spend so much time avoiding. My deepest instinct is that to unsee, to refuse to see what we have seen, is far more deadly than the drowning of baptism.

 Andrew Prior (2019)


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