Pausing in a pandemic to ask the big questions of life
BY BRIAN GRASSO
This is a guest post from Brian Grasso, Duke ’19. Originally posted on his personal blog here.
With some time to kill at home, I am finding that now is a good opportunity to read fiction. So, this past week, I began going through the Narnia series again with a multipronged approach of audiobooks, movies and books. Reading The Last Battle, the final book in the series, brings back an image from my childhood of the Penvensie siblings making it to Aslan’s Country and climbing, climbing in the beautiful land, further up and further in.
“Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia… just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world.”
There is a lot of talk on the internet about death, about how each of us can play a role in saving lives. But the death question goes deeper than merely how to avoid it. I want to help you think through death by laying out the surprisingly few number of philosophical postures towards mortality. Some of the people who read this may die this year from COVID-19. That’s not alarmist, nor is it an exaggeration. It’s a statistically possible claim. This is a good time to pursue wisdom, as well as information.
A Serious Question
In one New York Times article, predictions about the total death count from the coronavirus pandemic in the United States lay between 200,000 and 1.7 million in the absence of extreme interventions. If the former conservative number is correct, one in 1,636 Americans will die. In this case, we all know someone who knows someone who will die from the disease this year. Many of us will lose loved ones.
If the latter estimate is correct, one out of every 192 Americans will die. If this is the case, we all personally know someone who will die from COVID-19. Friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors, peers.
Of course, aggressive interventions are underway. But the problem is that we cannot self-quarantine forever, and a vaccine is most likely 12-18 months out. If we contain the virus effectively in the short run, as soon as life returns to normal, there will be another outbreak. Because of this, the next year will be a challenge for the world no matter how well we socially distance in these early days of the pandemic.
If you want to know what to do to help save lives, read here and here and here. Make sure to check out what the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization have to say. These resources are saturating your Facebook newsfeed as well as mine, which is fantastic.
This piece is a going to have a different feel. I want to take a moment to ask a serious question.
Are you prepared to die?
I hope that the worst projections for the coronavirus are wrong. I will do all in my power to make them wrong, and I ask that you do too. But if they are not wrong, if I post this on Facebook, it is possible that someone who reads these words will die unexpectedly this year from COVID-19.
Now is a good time to consider the big questions of life and interrogate our answers.
Death is uncomfortable to talk about except amongst the most trusted friends. My fear is that many Americans have simply not thought through the topic adequately. Death can feel like a foreign entity, a pathogen from another world. It’s always a surprise. It’s always too early. It’s always disruptive.
Yet, paradoxically, death is inevitable. If you survive the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, you will not survive the constant shortening of your telomeres, the slow decay of your body, the inevitable decline of your health and vitality. Death is a part of life like nothing else. And yet, death disrupts life like nothing else.
I want to help you think through the whole death issue. Don’t start from scratch. There are actually only three possible postures towards death: avoidant hedonism, materialism, or belief in the transcendent. Two are philosophical views, and one is, frankly, lazy. Let’s start with the all-too-popular-yet-lazy one.
- Avoidant hedonism
Avoidant hedonism is the business-as-usual posture towards death for most of us middle-class Americans. Avoidant: we don’t think about it. Hedonism: we just try to enjoy our lives, whatever that means for us as individuals.
Nothing shakes up this posture like proximity to death. There have been two times in my life that I’ve felt close to death. One was while riding on a motorbike at night in Kenya without a helmet.
I am at the back. I am the third rider on a bike clearly made for only two people when I see a python about two feet to the left up ahead of us. I lift my leg abruptly, the bike swerves a bit to the right, then the left, then we regain balance. Would I have died if the python struck us or if we crashed? Probably not. But the moment made me think about my mortality.
The second time I felt close to death was during a very realistic dream in high school. The dream feels like reality. I am murdered by a stranger in the dream. I wake up laying in my bed believing for a few minutes that I died and wondering when Jesus will come with an uber to take me up to heaven. The minutes pass. I muster the courage to reach over to my lamp and turn on my light. I am surprised to be alive.
Moments of proximity to death, whether real or imagined, can and should make us pause and consider what we spend our lives doing, whether our lives matter, in the biggest, deepest sense. The imminence of death (ours or a loved one’s), such as in a time of pandemic, makes us pause and consider our lives.
The two main problems with avoidant hedonism are that avoidance is temporary and hedonism is selfish. There will come a time when we cannot avoid death. There will come a time when we will look death squarely in the face and ask ourselves why we didn’t prepare for that moment. I cannot imagine greater despair than that of a person who lived as an avoidant hedonist and in the last moments of his life realized that he was a materialist by default and never even seriously explored the possibility that there are other ways that people think about the end of life.
The reality is that only one of two things will happen to us after we die: nothing or something. We should put thought into which one we think more likely. If nothing happens after we die, preparing for death means making peace with that, not just ignoring it. If something happens after we die, well, it’s probably in our best interest to try to figure out what that something might be.
Materialism is the philosophical belief that only the physical world exists, that this stuff that we see around us is the only stuff we get. In this view, death is the end. Nothing happens after we die. It is the eternally long, supremely dark abyss of nothingness.
Some friends of mine sometimes throw out cavalier comments about embracing the nothingness of death, about being fearless in the face of no longer being conscious, and I want to be fair to them. Perhaps some people really are okay with the idea of nonexistence. But I doubt it. What I think is more likely is that some people who embrace the posture of avoidant hedonism are flippant with their words. Joking about death is a classic move of the avoidant hedonist.
When I was in elementary school, I thought about nonexistence often. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. Death was a horrifying prospect to me. Looking back, I think these times of contemplation deepened me.
To take nonexistence seriously, to contemplate it and imagine it for myself, to consider the possibility that I am today, and I am not tomorrow, and I never will be again, is utterly terrifying. Take a moment to consider it for yourself. Perhaps read these words in your head: Today I am. Tomorrow I might not be. At some point, inevitably, I will cease to exist. Eventually, every memory of me will fade away.
I don’t think that the trembling that results when I contemplate nonexistence makes me weak. I think it makes me honest.
For the materialist, the inevitability of nonexistence poses hard questions about life before death. What do we make of love, beauty, hope, justice, passion, courage and kindness if all of us are destined for nonexistence? What moral difference do my actions make today if now is no more important (why would it be?) than a trillion years from now when the sun has shriveled up and our world is swallowed in darkness?
My early contemplation of nonexistence made me curious about religious traditions. How can death be so existentially foreign to my soul when it is the most natural phenomena of life? Why does death feel unnatural? It is not unnatural. Why does death feel disruptive? It’s the one thing that we can predict with absolute certainty.
When I was younger and working through these thoughts, I read ancient wisdom which seemed to give answers to my questions, answers like, “He has put eternity into man’s heart” and “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
When I contemplate nonexistence – not consider it, or contend for it, or cavalier past it but contemplate it – I conclude that eternity is in my heart. Death feels unnatural because it is, in some sense, unnatural.
- Belief in the transcendent
If you fall into this third camp, you are in good company. The vast majority of humanity, past and present, believe that something happens after we die. Now here’s my question: If there is more to life than biology, what is that more? Can we know it? If so, how can we know? Again, please don’t try to start from scratch with any of these “big” questions.
If there is something transcendent and eternal about human existence, in all probability, the true nature of reality will be found in one of the religious traditions of the world. It makes sense to me that if a God or many gods are real, they would make themselves known to people. The world’s religions can be divided into a handful of categories: the monotheistic ones (of which there are three main contenders), the polytheistic ones and the mystical force ones.
I am a practitioner of Christianity, the most common religion in the world. I cannot speak for other traditions comprehensively. When I started reading my Bible and taking it seriously, I found that it answered all of the questions of my heart. When I interrogated it intellectually, I found that it withstood the force of my questions and curiosities (if you disagree, I’d love to introduce you to a number of very well-educated Christian folks at this organization and this one).
And, most significantly, when I believed what the Bible said, I found Jesus, a Person who is both my God and my friend and has personally walked near to me in this world for the past ten years ever since I first believed in Him. He reminds me often that there is another world.
“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.
“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
Christianity deals wonderfully with the death problem. It explains death as unnatural. Death is not a part of God’s original design but rather the result of humankind’s choice to flee the Presence of God (a choice that, all too often, we still make today). And Christianity provides a solution: God Himself hated death so much that He was willing to die in order to overcome its power. This is why Jesus went to the Cross. Our destructive choices have consequences, but Jesus chose to be destroyed so that we wouldn’t have to be.
Don’t start from scratch on the big questions of life, and don’t take my word for anything. This is an important question. With some time to kill at home, now is a good time to read the Bible for the first time and check it out for yourself. I recommend starting with the Book of John.
A Deeper Country
If avoidant hedonism makes us selfish and materialism makes us hopeless, belief in the transcendent makes us brave. One common misconception of people who believe in other worlds is that their beliefs make them passive in this world. Actually, the opposite is true. Believing in other worlds is what gives magic to this one. It is what enchants virtues like love, beauty, hope, justice, passion, courage and kindness.
“The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if ever you get there you will know what I mean.” 
In a pandemic, those who believe in another world are freed from fear. Instead of hoarding (which flows from avoidant hedonism) or despairing (which flows from materialism), they generously give toilet paper, hand sanitizer, masks, food and money to the needy and the vulnerable, even if they barely have enough themselves. In The Last Battle, it is belief in another world that emboldens the Narnians to raise their swords to fight for their present world.
I believe that when we die, we will live in God’s country, if we are reconciled into relationship with Him in this life. We must make our peace with God before we pass to the world beyond our world. What do we have to lose by seeking God’s Presence now? What might we gain?
“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.” 
Whether or not we survive the coronavirus pandemic, our lives will be mists. They will go by faster than we expect. Explore wisdom from the ancient traditions of the world. Explore possible postures towards death, and pick one, and make peace with it. The one approach that makes absolutely no sense is avoidant hedonism.
And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
In your journey for truth, I implore you to check out Christianity. It has answered all the questions of my heart. I believe that the stories of the Bible are, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “true myth”.
 C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle
 Ecclesiastes 3:11 (ESV)
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
 C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle
 C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle
 C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle