Yesterday evening the bells from the Washington National Cathedral tolled 400 times, marking the 400,000 American lives lost to COVID-19. Globally, over two million people have died in this pandemic. That is a lot of death. And we are all feeling wrung out from the grief.
It’s important to remember that there have been good things that have resulted from this pandemic too. There are a number of internet memes that highlight some of the benefits. But in this post, I don’t want to look away from the tragedy. I want to explore how we can relate to death in healthy ways. And I’m not just talking about what I call the ‘big deaths’: losing loved ones or facing the end of our lives. Any conversation about death needs to include the ‘little deaths’: the losses, regrets, failures, shattered dreams, and brokennesses that come to every human life.
In the last two weeks, we’ve been exploring the important spiritual practice of conscious evolution (see this post and this one). To evolve consciously is to make a deliberate choice to face life’s changes mindfully and with the intention to grow continually into better versions of ourselves. And while we easily recognise how Life moves evolution forward, we may forget that Death is equally important. That’s why this post will offer some ideas about how we can engage more meaningfully with the deaths that come to us.
DEATH ON PARADE
In the last few weeks, Death has been on parade. It’s not just that we are being traumatised by the predicted second wave of the pandemic. It’s that the violence, inequality, and divisions that bring so much pain into our world have been so blatantly and visibly at work:
All these big and small deaths can mesmerise us into ‘doomscrolling‘ with all the accompanying mental health risks. Or they can lead us to ‘pandemic fatigue’ and futile attempts to ‘return to normal’ by relaxing our safety precautions. But neither of these strategies will keep us from the overwhelming grief or help us engage with the processes of Death in healthy ways.
FROM DEATH TO LIFE
Evolutionary spirituality offers us a way to engage with Death differently. This is not about minimising the grief or trying to comfort ourselves with platitudes about ‘everything being ok in the end.’ It’s about entering the pain of all the inevitable deaths we will face in creative and healing ways. The point is not to deny pain and grief. It is to learn how to utilise both Life and Death to evolve consciously and not become victims of what we cannot control.
As Richard Rohr often notes, the primary paths to transformation and wholeness are great love and great suffering. This means that when we face life’s deaths—whether big or little—we always have an opportunity to be transformed into deeper wholeness.
There are two basic ways in which Death comes calling. The first is in our own personal experiences of grief or betrayal and the second is in the larger collective pain of injustice and evil. In the first, our task is to respond creatively to ensure that our pain is ‘transformed and not transmitted’ (to quote Rohr again). In the second, our task is to expose and resist injustice in whatever small ways we can. In both, the challenge is to transform Death into Life without becoming a bringer of more death in the process. As one of my favourite quotes states: If in seeking to overcome the beast we become the beast, the beast has won (Anonymous).
WORKING CREATIVELY WITH DEATH
If we want our lives to be more whole, and our world to be less divided, unequal, and violent, then we must learn to work with Death as we evolve consciously toward our better selves. Here are a few suggestions for how we can practically and creatively turn Death into Life.
Dealing with personal grief and betrayal:
- Refuse to be defined by your pain. Reject bitterness and cynicism. Grieve well. Rage if you need to. But maintain your connection with Life (see last week’s post).
- Where necessary put strong boundaries between yourself and unsafe people. But don’t try to find healing by hurting others, even if they’ve hurt you. It only makes things worse.
- Find freedom by practicing forgiveness. You don’t have to forget what has been done to you, but you also don’t have to allow it to control you.
Dealing with injustice and evil:
- Align with others who share your desire for justice, but avoid condemning and mocking those whom you oppose. It doesn’t bring healing if we contribute to the polarisation in our world.
- Make a point of affirming anything positive that you see in those with whom you disagree. Celebrating what is good in someone does not mean that you condone what is evil.
- Speak out, where you can, against anything that favours some over others, or that brings unnecessary pain. Practically, and vocally, stand against injustice and work to live justly in small, practical ways.
ADD YOUR VOICE
Life and Death are not opposites. They are two sides of one coin. And evolution—whether spiritual or biological—requires them both. When we view Death as an enemy, we resist it and deny its transforming power. But when we embrace Death and learn to work with it, even in our pain, we often find our way to a richer, more vibrant Life. And that makes doing the work of evolving consciously worth the struggle.
I encourage you to take some time to consider your relationship with the big and little deaths in your life. Please share your thoughts in the comments.
- What is one thing you can do right now to work more creatively with the deaths you are facing?
- What is one thing you can do to resist injustice and the Death it brings into our world?
- Who do you know that needs to hear the message of this post today? What’s stopping you from sharing it with them now?
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