Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

Between Death, Distraction and Existential Dread

Between Death, Distraction and Existential Dread

None of us can put off death forever. To quote the opening line from Markus Zusak’s Book Thief, “You are going to die”; or Indiana Jones, “We are going to die.” Me. You. And everyone else. With my most recent article presenting an argument against assisted suicide, it felt like an opportune time for another on the topic of death, a point adapted from my Resurrection Sunday sermon. In a way, these two articles illustrate divergent treatments of death. While some are working hard to sanitise it, most of us endeavour to never think about it. In this article I’ll be turning my attention to the latter, the majority. For nearly all of us prefer to pretend that we aren’t going to die.

When I preached on this topic I remarked that my son is very vocal about his fears, only death is rarely among them. Even though we’ve never even had the slightest hint of a snake in our garden, this is what occupies his mind most. So he’s frightfully anxious about snakes, while giving almost no thought to shedding this mortal coil. Getting older brings a greater awareness of death, only we put the growing powers of age to work against reckoning with it. All this to say that the human experience is one haunted by death and simultaneously characterised by an unceasing effort to ignore it.

In 1 Corinthians 15:32 Paul quotes the famous expression, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ But the ease with words those lips roll off our tongue is perhaps an indication of how trite they are, and how desperately unsatisfying their sentiment. This is only proven by what they exhort: eating and drinking, ceaseless consumption without contentment. Distraction. To adapt a phrase from St Augustine, this resembles the futility of pouring water over a vast desert expecting to soak it through. We know it won’t. If I must drink tonight to forget tomorrow. I’ll have to do the same every night. Ad infinitum. Well, actually, ad mortem.

From what I can tell, few people have put their finger on this pining after distraction than Blaise Pascal in his Pensées. He writes, “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things” (§8.133). How true. How tragic. Because death is such an unhappy prospect—and being committed to maximal happiness—we believe that we’re better off not reflecting on it. In Pascal’s words, “men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think.” Only, as much as you put off confronting death we will all face it. ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ Even if the imperative clause of this expression betrays an approach to life deluded by distraction, the indicative clause states bare fact: we will die.

So, elsewhere in the Pensées Pascal writes, “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it” (§12.166). We are all walking the plank, wilfully blindfolded. We flood our lives with distractions because we’re terrified of dying. In addition to that, we pour ourselves into pursuing health and longevity. However advisable this is, have you reckoned with the truth that the most you’ll ever accomplish by it is to kick the can further down the road? There is an abyss. The end will bring with it annihilation. As much as you succeed in stopping yourself from staring into that darkness, it gets closer with every passing day.

There is, therefore, a real place for existential dread. In fact, I argued with the help of Friedrich Nietzsche that we would all be well served by occasionally turning away from our entertainment in order to take a cold, long, hard look at reality. In an age where most online spaces have become battlegrounds concerning the ‘facts’ and evidence, all of us inhabit bodies that are slowly surrendering to entropy. This is incontrovertible. Being troublingly inconvenient, we deliberately circumvent it. Though I’m not advocating for an unending dark night of the soul, we would all benefit from at least one or two sleepless and terror-filled nights.

In his Confessions, Leo Tolstoy honestly embraced this existential dread. He asks, “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?” This is a question well worth asking. More than this, it’s something we must ask. After all, people bravely facing their deaths is a well-documented in history. But Tolstoy’s question raises the stakes. To return to a handful of words above, if there is death then there’s also an “abyss” or “annihilation.” Those words partly capture the horror of ceasing to be, which is what overwhelmed the Russian writer. Death is destruction, at least by most modern conceptions. It’s a nothingness that drains all meaning out of our existence. Without perpetuity we must question the point. Annihilation is a dreadful prospect. No wonder we’re all devoted to eating and drinking, to distraction and diversion.

Over Easter I preached the Christian hope, grounded in the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many people deem this gospel a self-deceit, perhaps even a delusion. These skeptics remain unpersuaded concerning Jesus’ resurrection. So, the logic goes, Christians live out of step with reality, insisting on an untruth and looking to it for comfort. I’d push back a little here, because many other people are living by deliberately avoiding another truth, taking comfort in their consumerism and distractions.

comments powered by Disqus