A couple of months into this religious exploration, I was thinking about what an awesome outcome it is for any of us to be alive, and pondering why it seems we so rarely acknowledge this breathtaking fact. Then I stumbled upon something Jesus said that surprised me. He’s giving out his advice, like loving our neighbors and avoiding false prophets, when he says, “Because strait the gate, and narrow the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:14). He implies that our obligation to make morally responsible decisions stems from the simple fact that we are among the living—despite chances too slim to imagine. And here I thought I had cracked the case of some giant existential mystery. Have Christians known this for centuries?
But just as we come face to face with the wonder of our existence, with the enormous responsibility this honor seems to demand of us and the terror that we’ll likely do nothing to prove ourselves deserving of it, we receive the second half of the one-two punch of the human condition: we realize an end point lurks. I remember being 13 when the idea of death wrapped its long ugly fingers around my neck and choked me—it went from an abstract notion that happened to other people to being something that would happen to me. It was nighttime, and I was lying in bed when this thought entered my mind: someday I will be gone. I felt so permanent. How could this be? I found it preposterous and, then, horrifying. I gathered fistfuls of bedding and kicked wildly at the air. I was throwing a tantrum directed at…what? God?
I’ll still pitch a fit if the notion strikes me just right. I was terrified by death then, and not much has changed.
People tussle with this twin realization—existence, granted and revoked—again and again throughout a lifetime. It might give rise to bouts of shame and fear, two sides of the coin of life, but it is during the teenage years when both aspects are freshly dawned. Is it any wonder that teenagers are such a mess? At that age, you either grow sullen and moody, lashing out at the people you love most, or you become obsessed with the most superficial distractions, the clothes and crushes and any and every materialistic thing. Or, like I did, you swing wildly between these two states of being.
Later, as we get older, we may continue to find ways to divert our attention—the work and the errands and all the STUFF—from the painful truths for long stretches of seemingly happy productivity. But we can’t keep it at bay forever. It seeps back one way or another, either turned inward as depression and anxiety or outward as bitterness and rage. It may bubble up and over as addictions, bad relationships, or terrible choices. Because, ultimately, what these truths do to us if we do not accept and move past them is make it really hard to love—either ourselves or whatever force brought us here and will eventually snatch us away.
It occurs to me that perhaps this is the main goal of religion—to help us look at and accept the difficult aspects of the human condition so that we can learn to embrace the joyful ones. Without this, how can we properly love others?