Sabbath Day: Courage
Last night I dreamt that I was hiking to a mountain in order to climb. I was barefoot, but the trail was smooth and soft. I had to keep shedding responsibilities and projects, dropping them beside the trail, if I were to keep walking. It was exhilarating to finally reach the granite outcroppings and actually begin to climb, my bare feet now performing, alternately, like boots and climbing shoes. I don’t remember reaching the summit. The dream was all about getting there.
No doubt, the dream was born of my sermon last week, called Mountain Climbing: On Transfiguration Sunday. It also came from reading Belden Lane’s Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice. Certainly, it was spurred on by renewing my membership at The Cliff’s in Valhalla and introducing my nephew to indoor climbing. I am sure that watching video of Tommy Caldwell’s and Kevin Jorgeson’s history making ascent of the Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park played no small part.
Mostly, I think the long winter is wearing on me and I am anxious to be outdoors.
I spent today entirely indoors, reading, cleaning, and organizing. We are still settling into our new home and there is much to do. The project today was to complete the installation of the bookshelves in the library. Unpacking books was very satisfying – like visiting old friends.
I also began and nearly finished Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. This is a profound meditation on the choices we face at the end of life, and what it means to live meaningfully in the face of our inevitable end. Medicine and nursing care can prolong life, and numerous options exist (if you can afford them) for (relatively) independent living, but
Our reverence for independence takes no account of the reality of what happens in life: sooner or later, independence will become impossible. Serious illness or infirmity will strike. It is as inevitable as sunset. And then a new questions arises: If independence is what we live for, what do we do when it can no longer be sustained?
Gawande’s book commends courage, the strength to face with knowledge what is to be hoped and feared, and still to be able to act. We have many reasons to shrink from facing up to our mortality, and knowing how to act when we do is not always clear. This is hard enough, but the book really aims to change to way our society treats the dying. In many, many ways, we deny that facing death with courage is important to the dying. Instead, and often with the aim of keeping aging dependents safe (from themselves), we offer lifeless and soulless options for their final days, months, years. There are better ways.
I am reminded of Ernst Becker’s classic The Denial of Death, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Becker’s book spoke of heroism, the chief characteristic of which is courage, as the necessary response to what would otherwise be a crippling fear of death. Martin Luther said that the fear of death is death itself. Facing that fear and still acting with meaning takes courage. It both requires and fosters life.
Much to think on here as I head into Lent.
I hope I dream of climbing again.