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Bertrand Russell famously dismissed religion as a product of our fear of dying

Fear of Living

Bertrand Russell famously dismissed religion as a response to our fear of dying.  That we concoct fantasies to comfort us against the inevitable.

    But, I note on my way to that eventuality, that another fear grips many of us, the fear of living. 

My mother, on her deathbed in Stamford Hospital, assured me she was not afraid of dying, a thought with which she had lived since I was born and she was hospitalized with "heart palpitations."  If she was afraid of anything, it was of being alone.  Ever since she bade farewell to her father and mother at the age of nine to sail across the pond from Northern Ireland to Connecticut, never to see her parents again, my mom teared with every parting, no matter how soon she would next see her son and his family.

My dear friend, Margaret McManus, certainly had her fears, mostly inspired by bridges and upper stand seats at stadiums.  Yet when I visited with her in the hospital during her last illness and spoke with her about many things, including deeply personal things, Margaret casually shrugged off any fear of dying.

Bertrand may have an ally in Joe, the dockworker, singing "Ol' Man River," how "I get weary and sick of tryin', 'Cause I'm tired of livin', but I'm scared of dyin'."  But, as I read that verse, Joe provides equal time to those of us disputing Mr. Russell.

Paul Tillich, the Time Magazine cover story in the 1950's, a professor of theology with whom I took a course at Union Theological Seminary, wrote many weighty tomes.  His most famous book, however, one that caught the popular imagination, is The Courage to Be.  Which sums it up in a title, that living, living fully, generously, and gladly, takes courage, a lot of it.

Which was my dear wife's verdict on her mom, Helen Ledgerwood Davis, who lived to the ripe age of 99, and had she lived another month her tombstone in the cemetery at the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church could have read 1903 - 2003: courage, what courage it takes to live nearly a century.  Living is not a default position; it's a vanguard strategy, going on living at a great age with so much loss and with ever increasing requirements of effort.  Dying is the easy way out. Life, now that takes courage.  President Eisenhower is said to have answered the question, "Who would ever want to be 100?" with "I guess someone who is 99."  What Ike didn't say, but should have, is that the 99 year old would be striving for a mark not fearing a death.  Helen says "Amen."

    Religion, dear Bertrand, at least the Biblical religion, only tangentially addresses the death that is the end of mortal life.  There are other deaths which are the Gospel's chief target.  They are the subject for other essays.  I know, I know, the TV evangelists might lead you to think otherwise with their insistent message about getting saved from eternal damnation, as if the critical moment for each of us is when we breathe our last.  But Jesus, the same Jesus the televangelists quote, said quite bluntly about God, that "he is God not of the dead, but of the living" (Luke 20:38).  Jesus is principally concerned with the living of life, not with getting beyond it.  From the opening page of Genesis to the last chapter of The Revelation of John the persistent theme is life, and that life is not just worthwhile but good.  Other cosmologies present a bleak picture of the universe, suggesting, in so many words, that we are damned into existence, and the quicker we can escape it the better.   To the contrary proclaims the Good Shepherd about his flock (meaning every human being), "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). 

    And having it here, now, before, what my friend refers to as, Das Ende.  As for what follows, we rely on God's mercy and God "is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine" (Ephesians 2:20).  I'm sorry (not really), Bertrand, you simply have it wrong for many of us.


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