For several months I had been reading about death. Then one Tuesday evening early in January, it occurred to me that in order truly to understand death I would have to face it firsthand. No amount of reading could lead to the kind of knowledge that comes from a personal encounter.
Immediately, however, an obstacle presented itself. How could someone confront their own death while believing it is years in the future? Perhaps, I thought, I could select a day, an ordinary work day, and imagine that it would be my last. Although that would not be the same as actually encountering death, it would be close enough. Of course, I would have to convince myself, from the moment I got out of bed to the time I got back in, that the day really was my last. I could not think, “Tomorrow and the day after I will look back to this day as the day I discovered what it is like to die.”
I resolved to do the experiment. Part of its appeal came from its drama. I imagined myself talking with people, believing that I would never talk to them again, while they had not the slightest hint of what was going on. In addition, I felt driven to test out my conviction that Christian faith overcomes the sting of death. It was not that I had to see whether my conviction was true. What I needed was to feel its truth.
My imagination regarding the experiment was stimulated by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s moving account of the time he himself had faced death. He had spent several years in prison because of his political views. While there, the prison warden decided to have a little fun at Dostoevsky’s expense. Dostoevsky and several oher prisoners were handed a sentence of death, led to the stakes to be shot, but at the last minute given a reprieve. During the fifteen or twenty minutes between the announcement of the death penalty and the giving of the reprieve, Dostoevsky lived in the fullest conviction that in a few minutes he would die. He remembered with extraordinary distinctness all that he underwent in those minutes.
The thought that gripped him most, he writes, was, “What if I were not to die! What if I could go back to life—what eternity! And it would all be mine! I would turn every minute into an age; I would lose nothing, I would count every minute as it passed, I would not waste one.”
I had just read The Idiot, in which Dostoevsky recounted this poignant experience of his, and I felt moved to duplicate his reprieve. The thought of awakening the next day (I forgot that there wasn’t supposed to be a next day) captured my consciousness. I would be absolutely astonished to be alive. I would overflow with an indescribable joy. I would be seized by a boundless energy to love and to care, not letting a minute by without using it for eternity.
Several times during the next few days a sense of fearful exuberance at the momenteousness of my experiment overwhelmed me. The day was going to be extraordinarily intense. I needed some time to get myself ready.
As those days passed, however, new feelings about the experiment began to surface. Although my resolution remained firm, I saw that I would have to overcome a certain resistance that was developing. For one thing, I began to be afraid that the day actually would make a difference in the way I lived and thought and felt. I found myself in the predicament of the person who feels driven to change but who clings to the old. There was something in me that said, “Go ahead. Abandon yourself entirely. Be selfless. Give unreservedly.” There was something else in me that said, “Wait. You will have to do things you really don’t want to. You will have to change too much.”
For another thing, I began to be afraid that the experiment would be a failure. When I first conceived of it, I had no doubt that I would come to feel that my faith would overcome the sting of death. There was no question in my mind then that my last day would be far different from other days. But now I wondered whether this would really happen. There probably would be times when I would think that death has the last say; and there almost certainly would be many minutes that I would waste and misuse. I feared that on the whole the day might turn out to be not much different from most other days.
What intensified this fear of failure was the increasingly perceptible thought, “How will people react when I tell them that I have done this dramatic experiment?” My initial conception of it did not include this idea, but now there flashed in my mind the image of myself describing the events of the day to someone—no one specifically—who was listening to me with rapt attention. I suspected that one of my real motives for wanting to do the experiment was the desire to appear spiritually successful to those whose admiration I sought. Because of this, the possibility of failure came as a blow. I must, I admitted to myself, need this admiration more than I consciously knew.
I could, of course, suppress this motive, and I tried to do so, but without complete success. However, it would not have mattered even if I had been fully successful, for I discovered a new motive: an intoxicating desire to appear spiritually successful to myself. That was why I could not shrug my shoulders at the possibility of failure. The day had too much significance to take such a risk.
I consoled myself with the thought that the whole thing was just an experiment, and that if I failed I could always do it again. But I quickly saw this for what it was. It began to dawn on me that if I was to do the experiment, I would have to accept ahead of time that it would contain many moments of failure. Accepting this, however, was exceedingly difficult, for it meant that I would have to wrench out my craving for justifying myself by my success, both to others and to myself.
It looked as if I would have to get up some morning and say, “This is it,” and then plunge into the experiment without thinking of all my fears. That is what I decided to do. I told myself, “Sometime soon I will say upon first awakening, ‘Today’s the day.’ I will not think of any of the intervening days as my last, but on those days will observe my reactions both toward the experiment and toward death.” This strategy meant that I could overcome the resistance I had built up with one swift blow, just as people who want to learn to swim but are afraid of the water sometimes simply jump into it. It also meant that I would become a deathwatcher for a time.
To be a deathwatcher, I would have to be sensitive to every feeling I had toward death. I could not suppress those that did not fit my conception of how a Christian should feel. That would distort the truth, and the truth is what I had to find. What I am now going to describe is what happened as I prepared to make the plunge.
Immediately I found myself thinking, almost involuntarily, about what I would do when the day arrived. I thought about the love I would impart, the words of encouragement I would give, the industry I would possess. I saw myself smiling affectionately to acquaintances and listening selflessly to the despairing. I imagined myself genuinely accepting those with differing views and offensive habits. I saw myself walking, talking, and working with spiritual calm.
Most of my thoughts about what I would do when I took the plunge centered on the last twenty minutes—the interval between the time I pulled the blankets over my shoulders and the time I drifted into unconsciousness. It was during these last minutes that I would experience, intensely and movingly, my utter helplessness in the face of an imminent and onrushing death. I would not be able to delay it by denial or rationalization. It would come, and I would be powerless to stay its approach. I imagined myself reacting in the only way possible: casting myself entirely and unreservedly on God’s resurrecting grace.
I also imagined myself running over my life, thinking of my successes with a feeling of warm satisfaction, but feeling, too, that no matter how worthwhile they were, they would be inadequate to justify my existence. The thought of failure, both in what I had done and in what I had not done, would contribute to this acute sense of spiritual inadequacy. Again, I saw myself reacting in the only way possible: throwing myself wholly and completely on God’s justifying mercy.
I wish I could say that what I imagined became real, that I actually did place myself securely onto God’s resurrecting grace and justifying mercy, and that henceforth I never wavered from feeling them. I have, indeed, experienced these, and the mere act of imagining casting myself totally upon them heightened their reality to me. But I soon discovered that having once felt them to be the solution to death and failure did not mean I would always feel them to be so.
The sense of helplessness I imagined feeling when death was but twenty minutes away receded as death felt more remote. A feeling of autonomy, of having control over my life, replaced this sense of helplessness whenever I forgot about death. Moreover, the sense of spiritual inadequacy I imagined feeling during those last minutes diminished whenever I thought about my accomplishments. The impulse to justify my existence by them was nearly irresistible, and at times replaced my consciousness of God’s justifying mercy. The Christian heart, I discovered, is a strange paradox: though it be the recipient of grace, it often succumbs to the tug of autonomy and self-justification.
“The Terror” happened on a Tuesday evening two weeks after conceiving of the experiment—I still had not jumped into the water. I was lying on my living room couch reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Immediately upon learning that Ivan Ilyich had died at 45, just a few short years from my own age, an excruciating terror swept over me. My heart—my physical one—thumped against my chest and I lost my breath for a moment. It was not simply a passing fright that took hold of me. It was a crushing terror, much heavier than ordinary fear. Never before had I felt anything so overpowering, so namelessly numbing.
The Terror lasted a full second. Though it came involuntarily, it left by my will. I told myself, “No, I shall not die,” and I believed it. No sooner, however, had I thought these words, and believed them, than I recognized them for what they were. Yet I kept them in my consciousness, clutched them, and savored them. For several months afterwards I found myself gladly succumbing to the delicious convenience of this denial when the threat of terror made itself known.
Several feelings lay behind this threat: a sense of uncertainty about what lay beyond death, the hint of extinction, the realization that death would strip away all my achievements, projects and social realities, plus one more which I found difficult to specify. Somehow death felt shameful. It seemed to invalidate my existence, to say that something is basically wrong. It was almost as if a judgment from above had been handed down: “You shall surely die.” The presence of this feeling explained another reaction I found myself having toward death—an attempt to justify myself by thinking of the good I have done. An unsettling instance of this reaction occurred some weeks after The Terror.
I had started reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace and had come across what struck me as a brilliantly insightful description of Prince Andrey’s reaction to the possibility of his own death. It was the evening before an engagement with the French army. Tens of thousands of lives were at risk, and, thought Prince Andrey, his, too. “Yes, it may well be that I shall be killed tomorrow,” he mused.
All at once, a whole chain of thoughts ran through Prince Andrey’s mind. He recalled his last farewell to his father and his wife; he fondly remembered the early days of his love for her. He pictured himself valiantly fighting the next day, resolutely leading his regiment to a decisive victory. He alone would be responsible for the planning of the regiment’s maneuver, and for the execution of the plan. He would win the victory by himself, and be appointed to replace the indecisive commander. “Death, wounds, the loss of my family—nothing has terrors for me. And dear and precious as many people are to me: father, sister, wife—the people dearest to me; yet dreadful and unnatural as it seems, I would give them all up for a moment of glory, of triumph over men.”
What a splendid picture of human nature vainly fleeing the sting of death, I thought. All that Prince Andrey wants is glory, to be known by people, to be loved by them. If he has these, death and agony will mean nothing to him.
The very next day I caught myself doing exactly as Prince Andrey did. It does not matter, I thought, whether I die at 45, because I have done what I conceive to be significant things.This glory, or what I perceived as glory, salved the keen pain of death, and I held onto it even though I saw through it.
The Easter Experience
My last significant experience as a deathwatcher occurred Easter morning. During the previous weeks, I had allowed myself to feel great fear, anxiety, helplessness, and spiritual incompetence. That morning I sat in church next to my wife in our usual spot—on the right side, two-thirds of the way back. About halfway through the sermon, the minister proclaimed, “Christ rose from the dead, and he still lives, for us.” That is when it happened. Immediately I was overwhelmed with the truth of what he had said. I felt myself starting to spring up to declare to everyone there, “That’s the answer.” I barely caught myself, as a sharp sense of impending embarrassment held me to the pew.
Of all my experiences as a deathwatcher, this is the one least mixed with anxiety, denial, and rationalization. Along with what I imagined feeling during the last twenty minutes, it is the experience to which I cling when I anxiously confront death’s piercing jab. It came at the end of three months of intense deathwatching.
Twice during those three months, from early January to mid-April, I followed through on my resolution to tell myself upon arising, “Today’s the day.” The first time I did this I forgot about the experiment in mid-morning, and did not realize I had forgotten until late afternoon. The next time I responded with, “No, not today.” Once I resolved as I crawled into bed at night, “Tomorrow will be my last day.” Again I responded with, “No, I’ll wait until another day.”
Near the end of those three months, I mentioned the experiment and my inability to do it to several people with whom I was having lunch. I half hoped one of them would volunteer to do it with me, thinking that that would make it easier. None did. It would not have made a difference anyway, I later decided, since I still would have had to face my death by myself.
A number of years have now elapsed since the Easter experience. Because of my inability to do the experiment, I gave up the attempt, thinking I had failed. Now it occurs to me that although I did not do the experiment in its original form, I nevertheless did do it in snatches. Moreover, I gained from this drawn out effort more than I would have from a single day’s experiences.
Perhaps the most obvious result of the entire period was a confirmation of Pascal’s perceptive remark: “It is easier to bear death when one is not thinking about it than the idea of death when there is no danger.” No doubt our final minutes will be less turgid than the deliberate reflection we engage in years before.
Moreover, when I probe the recesses of my heart, I find that it is nearly impossible to avoid ambivalence. Although I genuinely desire to please God, I feel the pull of self-centeredness. Though I experience the peaceful restfulness of God’s forgiveness, I succumb to the anxious restlessness of guilt. This ambivalence does not mean that Christian faith is powerless when confronted with self, guilt, and death. It means that Christians are still sin-infected. Christian faith does have power, but its victories are not cheap.
In addition, when we encounter death firsthand, we discover who we really are. We perceive more clearly the subtle ways we strive to justify ourselves to God, to others, and to ourselves. We uncover hidden motives for our everyday and Christian activities. We unearth numerous trivial pursuits. Like Dostoevsky we find that it is “impossible really to live ‘counting each moment’.” Our great dreams are smashed on the rocks of reality. The wealth of life is squandered. This deflating realization compels us to see life’s significance through the eyes of the tax collector who cried, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."