Another Week Ends

Nine Days, Wellness Horror, the Burdens of Beauty, and the Last Thing You See Before You Die

CJ Green / 8.20.21

1. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I recently had a baby, and I keep trying to see life through her eyes (the sky for the first time, a tree, a light fixture), but I keep thinking about death, specifically my death, and hoping it’s far off, and wondering what will be the last thing I ever see. More than likely it will be some hospital ceiling that means nothing to me. Same for you, because, after all, the hospital is where most go to die. And yet the hospital is — according to Lydia Dugdale, author of book The Lost Art of Dying — a place where we also deny death. Ian Marcus Corbin, reviewing Dugdale’s book for The Point, writes, “hospitals have increasingly become the central site for … staving off death for as long as possible.”

Eighty percent of Americans report that their preference is to die at home, but a majority go on to die in the hospital, desperately waiting for salvation and/or guidance from the body-experts, “languishing,” as Dugdale puts it, “in a sterile medical ward, too sick to escape, imprisoned by illness, dependent on futuristic machines, at the mercy of an anonymous throng of health-care professionals.”

But there are better ways to die, most of which begin with facing up to death’s inevitability. Dugdale describes the Jewish tradition of tahara, in which “The body is treated with loving respect — bathed in warm water, spoken and sung to, called by its Hebrew name — as it is prepared for burial.” I’m reminded of our interview with Liz Tichenor, who professed that Americans try to make death as “not-death” as possible. Corbin continues:

Religion has the power to change mightily our experience of death and dying. Take Christianity, the most common American religion, which promises a post-death eternity lived in blissful communion with the all-loving creator of the universe. The consolations offered here are far different than those described by Aristotle. Bereaved Christians do not believe that the loss of death is permanent, but rather that the deceased now occupy a different and better form of life, and that eventual reunion is in the offing. It is true that dying as a faithful Christian still requires courage, but it would be difficult to overstate the difference between dying into annihilation and into glory.

He writes that regardless of belief, Americans would do well to reflect on the medieval aphorism memento mori (“remember that you must die”). Avoidance, he concludes, can be catastrophic:

humans in headlong flight from the inevitable tend to grow anxious and desperate. They tend to hurl themselves into various addictions and evasions. They tend to turn on each other. Learning to live with what we are — both living and dying things — is a matter of deep importance, even civilizational urgency. Dugdale’s call to remember that we are dust, and then to keep remembering, is one that we need to heed.

2. Since there seemed to be no stopping my “intrusive thoughts” (intruding on what?) about death, I went to see one of the year’s most existentialist films, Nine Days. It was one of the greatest things I did this week. Nine Days follows a formerly alive man interviewing souls for their chance to live life on Earth. Very emotional, needless to say. I think it might not be showing in too many places now, but if you get the chance to stream it or see it, wear a long sleeve to wipe your tears, but also know you might laugh out loud whenever Tony Hale is onscreen. The film has a lot to say about the gift of life, in the most personal sense.

3. One thing I appreciated about Nine Days was that it not only takes the harshness of life seriously (war crimes, shootings, and bullying are all addressed) but that it features with equal gravity life’s pleasant mundanities (water running through fingers, sharing a beer with a buddy, biking down a quiet street, etc.). But if you live online today, as so many of us do, it’s easy to feel depressed and overwhelmed by the constant tragedies around the world. Pray for Haiti, Afghanistan, Siberia, and as it happens, the entire planet. And so I was grateful to read the recent newsletter from Nadia Bolz-Weber, which gives new meaning to the old T.S. Eliot line “Teach us to care and not to care.” Likening her spirit to an old circuit breaker that keeps overloading, she writes,

…when I check social media it feels like there are voices saying “if you aren’t talking about, doing something about, performatively posting about ___(fill in the blank)___then you are an irredeemably callous, privileged, bigot who IS PART OF THE PROBLEM” and when I am someone who does actually care about human suffering and injustice (someone who feels every picture I see, and story I read) it leaves me feeling like absolute shit. I am left wondering: am I doing enough, sacrificing enough, giving enough, saying enough about all the horrible things right now to think of myself as a good person and subsequently silence the accusing voice in my head? No. The answer is always no. No I am not. Nor could I. Because no matter what I do the goal of “enough” is just as far as when I started.

And yet doing nothing is hardly the answer.

So I wanted to share something with you. Every day of my life I ask myself three discernment questions I learned from one of my teachers, Suzanne Stabile:

What’s MINE to do, and what’s NOT mine to do?

What’s MINE to say and what’s NOT mine to say?

And the third one is harder:

What’s MINE to care about and what’s NOT mine to care about?

To be clear – that is not to say that it is not worthy to be cared about by SOMEONE, only that my effectiveness in the world cannot extend to every worthy to be cared about event and situation.  It’s not an issue of values, it’s an issue of MATH.*

So I try and remember, 1. We are still living through a global pandemic and that means the baseline of anxiety and grief is higher than ever and shared by everyone. 2. The world is on fire literally and metaphorically. But 3. I only have so much water in my bucket to help with the fires. The more exposure I have to the fires I have NO WATER to fight, the more likely I am to get so burned, and inhale so much smoke that I cannot help anymore with the fires close enough to fight once my bucket is full again.

So I try and tell myself that It’s ok to focus on one fire.

I also like Bolz-Weber’s conclusion, where she says “Just, thank you” to anyone throwing water on a particular fire, whether environmental or social or otherwise. In my own experience, “fires” often prove to be within water-throwing distance — I mean physically, that is, a few feet. (Notwithstanding actual wildfires, of course. In that case, drop the bucket of water and run!)

4. Keeping right on with the death theme, here’s some grim humor from The Onion: a slideshow of the “Most Insane Things That Happen to Your Body After You Die.” One of my favorites:

Hair reverts to first haircut: Your hair doesn’t just fall out or lie limp; instead, it will return to the bowl cut or tiny pigtails you got when you were 11 months old.

And from Reductress: “Progress! Woman Experiencing Happiness Only 25% Sure Something Terrible Is About to Ruin It.”

While Lila is enjoying her relatively unchecked joy, she does also have some concerns about her lack of concerns.

5. With his “Guide to Finding Faith,” Ross Douthat tried his best to evangelize the readers of the New York Times, but I think a “blueprint for thinking your way into religious belief” is destined to fail, no matter what publication it appears in. Faith, if any of us actually have it, is a gift, and probably not something many will experience after reading an op-ed. Still, there are some noteworthy paragraphs, mostly rehashing the idea that (even in secular culture) religion hasn’t vanished; it just doesn’t get press coverage as such.

The disenchantment of the modern world is a myth of the intelligentsia: In reality it never happened. Instead, through the whole multicentury process of secularization, the decline of religion’s political power and cultural prestige, people kept right on having near-death experiences and demonic visitations and wild divine encounters. They just lost the religious structures through which those experiences used to be interpreted. […]

For finite and suffering creatures, religious belief offers important kinds of hope and consolation. But unbelief has its own comforts: It takes a whole vast zone of ideas and arguments, practices and demands, supernatural perils and metaphysical complexities, and whispers, well, at least you don’t have to spend time thinking about that.

But actually you do. So if you are standing uncertainly on the threshold of whatever faith tradition you feel closest to, you don’t have to heed the inner voice insisting that it’s necessarily more reasonable and sensible and modern to take a step backward. You can recognize instead that reality is probably not as materialism describes it, and take up the obligation of a serious human being preparing for life and death alike — to move forward, to step through.

6. In TV, it seems pretty well accepted that Hulu’s new show Nine Perfect Strangers is a bit of a letdown, but at the Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert notes that it’s part of a broader movement: “the emerging genre of wellness horror, in which a group of wealthy, miserable people who are paying silly amounts of money to feel better about themselves ends up instead in a spa-weekend version of Dante’s Inferno.

Wellness horror requires a difficult dance of balancing cynicism with empathy. Inevitably, the holistic meal plans and inner-child discovery will descend into carnage, which requires the movie or show at hand to be distrustful about the nature of its spiritual leader. And yet for the audience to be fully on board, we have to truly connect with the pain of the characters trying to get well in the first place. I found The White Lotus deeply satisfying as social satire, but became frustrated with the way it kept most of its characters at arm’s length. (Tanya, played by Jennifer Coolidge, and her breathy, exorcising cries of “Mother!” were the exception.) Midsommar, Ari Aster’s trippy, incandescent horror film about a grieving woman (Florence Pugh) who inadvertently accompanies her boyfriend to a Swedish festival of human sacrifice, committed fully to the idea that something can be transformative and utterly monstrous at the same time. Catharsis and healing, it argued, can come at a terrible cost.

7. Another excellent essay from The Point, this one by Elizabeth Barber. In “Hot or Not,” Barber reflects on her grandfather’s weird expectations that the women in his family be beautiful. It’s a powerful essay on standards of beauty, the burden of expectations, and the limits of control. Amidst it all Barber buries one startling line that I found worth highlighting:

What did my grandfather want with a gorgeous daughter? … One guess of mine is that my grandfather, an atheist who does not believe in afterlives, resolved that he had one life to live and that everything and everyone in it should therefore be as perfect as he can force them to be.

Without doubt, Christians (and people of other religions) can/do share similar faults, but I also think there’s a major argument to be made for Christianity undermining today’s harmful laws of beauty. There’s nothing compatible with the gospel of Jesus and the superiority we tend to associate with “good looks.”

8. Along these lines, at 1517, Kelsi Klembara also addresses the question of body image, but pushes it further, drawing clearer lines toward the gospel.

As much as we can and should reclaim the idea that our bodies are good, we must hold in tension the reality that in this life, we also very much need saving from our physical, emotional, and mental selves. Through illness, injury, and old age (let alone the conscious decisions we each make to either over-prioritize or ignore our bodies), our physicality constantly lets us down. As Paul so pointedly states, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24)

The reminder that we are God’s handiwork isn’t enough to redeem us from our complicated and broken relationships with our physical forms. As the Book of Concord continues, “We believe, teach, and confess that original sin is not a slight corruption of human nature, but that it is so deep a corruption that nothing sound or uncorrupted has survived in man’s body or soul, in his inward or outward powers.” To solve this problem of corruption, we often try to convince ourselves that it’s not so bad that we cannot think or work ourselves out of it.

Klembara notes that whether our attitudes are self-loving or self-loathing, they are still self-oriented — a posture of ensnarement in any case. Freedom comes not from correcting one’s self-view, but from entirely from the outside.

This is what I wish I could tell the young girl from my journals – Yes, you are beautiful. Yes, you are loved. But even in your ugliest and darkest moments, even when either the reality or guilt of eating disorders washes over you anew, God looks at you as precious not because of how broken you are nor because of how much you’ve overcome, but simply because of the broken and suffering body of his son, which was raised anew so that your own mortal body may have life eternal in the Spirit.

Strays: