As Harmon lay dying

Like plenty of other people, Harmon is afraid to die. He has the advantage (or is it a disadvantage?) of knowing that his rendezvous with the inevitable is drawing near. Hours tick by slowly as one's time grows short, and he is giving a lot thought to the affairs of his life.

Harmon is dolefully aware that his 80-something body is showing signs of irreparable wear, while still alert enough to remember that the actual process of dying is apt to be agonizing. And when he does allow himself to speculate about the afterlife, it strikes him as a fearful unknown. Is the hereafter a place of perpetual pain? He's picked up enough religion to know that some preachers make much of that possibility.

Speculations of this sort used to flit only occasionally through Harmon's mind, but nowadays they linger. While he mostly enjoyed his ordinary life with its standard stock of family, friends and activities, he's also amassed a stockpile of regrets that seems to grow larger in his mindscape. And as the time left ahead of him is being tallied in months or days (certainly not years), his apprehension increases.

Ultimate mystery

Every adult knows that every human being dies, but most of us are like Harmon and find an out-of-the-way place to park that knowledge so that it doesn't interfere with the business of daily living. That's perfectly okay as long as it isn't a form of denial. Alas, some people avoid funerals and cloak any mention of mortality with euphemisms, scurrying from the certainty of death like a disturbed nest of cockroaches fleeing a blast of pesticide.

Although death is the ultimate mystery—the utter limit of human knowledge—most people do find ways to fill in the blanks with beliefs that help to allay the fears. This is one of the roles of religion. Millions of Christians and others embrace the prospects of eternity with a joyful expectation of being in the presence of God. We call it heaven. Other traditions offer explanations that also seem satisfying to their followers. Even consummate materialist Christopher Hitchens won't be the only avowed atheist who returned to the dust of the earth with fortitude.

Regardless of our mental adjustments, death remains the enemy of life—the drive to survive our deepest human instinct. Shortly before his death in 1965, an aged Winston Churchill contemplated a piece of hardwood burning slowly in the fireplace. "I know what it's like to be a log," he observed, "reluctant to be consumed, but yielding in the end to persuasion." We resist intrusions of mortality. We look to technology and medicine for every available opportunity to evade the inescapable. Inevitably we succumb.

Beyond fear

And then? What next? Some of our best information about death and the hereafter comes from the testimony of people who have had a near death experience (NDE). In The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul (HarperCollins, 2007), Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary review the literature and report that "only a minority of NDEs are distressing."

In fact, they continue, "a key finding is that when NDEs follow a suicide attempt, the patient typically abandons thoughts of suicide afterward." The studies reveal that those who gaze most deeply into the maw of eternity lose their fear of the afterlife and develop a heightened appreciation—a kinder, gentler approach—to their continuing existence on earth. The section goes on to make an important point: "Losing the fear of death seems to mean losing the fear of life as well."

As Harmon lay dying, he thought about the fears that dogged him throughout his life. Even more desirable than being able to die peacefully, he determined, is being able to live fearlessly. He had managed to muddle his way through 80-plus years despite recurrent anxieties about his own moral shortcomings, financial fiascos, relational dissension, workplace worries and many other fears.

For Harmon as for everyone, the gap between his aims and his achievements is woefully wide. For Christian believers, this isn't the final reckoning. Fear is abolished when we comprehend that "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set [us] free from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:2).

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