Georges de La Tour, “The Repentant Magdalen”
This devotional was written by new Upper School Humanities teacher Josh Gibbs and presented at the Upper School Retreat last week. We will continue to explore the virtue COURAGE and its implications in our lives throughout this year.
Last year, The New Yorker published a story about how an extremely reclusive and hermetic lifestyle has become increasingly popular among Japanese youth. The hikikomori, or shut-ins, are young men who renounce social life altogether and live entirely in their own bedrooms in the homes of their parents. They spend almost all of their time on the internet, their parents bring them meals on trays— some hikikomori do not leave their homes, let alone their rooms, for many years. When an hikikomori decides to abandon this reclusive lifestyle, they often find it difficult to reenter society. Many become suicidal.
Japanese culture does not stigmatize suicide, as does American culture. Suicide is regarded by many in Japan as an honorable way to atone for one’s sins. Japan’s suicide rate is twice that of the United States; suicide is the leading cause of death among Japanese men aged 20 to 44. In the same article for The New Yorker, author Larissa Macfarquhar writes:
In Japan, suicide can be a gesture of moral integrity and freedom, or an act of beauty. When the writer Eto Jun killed himself, in 1999, he was praised by intellectuals, and it was said that his act demonstrated “first-class aesthetics.” When a cabinet minister under investigation for financial impropriety killed himself, in 2007, the governor of Tokyo called him a true samurai for preserving his honor.
This is by no means the universal account of suicide in Japan, though.
Numerous suicide prevention centers and hotlines are available for those in anguish. Macfarquhar also describes a Buddhist monk, Ittetsu Nemoto, who has opened a small temple in the woods, away from major cities, where suicidal persons come to contemplate and confront their fears.
[Nemoto] tells attendees to imagine they’ve been given a diagnosis of cancer and have three months to live. He instructs them to write down what they want to do in those three months. Then he tells them to imagine they have one month left; then a week; then ten minutes. Most people start crying in the course of this exercise, Nemoto among them.
I have tried leading a few classes of my own through such a thought experiment, although I’ve not told them in advance where it’s all going. “Imagine you’ve been given ten years to live. Write down a list of things you would try to accomplish if you had a year.” Everyone writes for five minutes, then I tell them to draw a line under all they’ve written and I say, “Now, imagine you’ve been given just one year to live. What would you try to accomplish in that year.” They write for five minutes. “Now imagine a month.”
Then a week. Then a day. Then an hour. Then five minutes. Then one minute.
If this all seems a rather strange place to begin a talk about courage, perhaps it will be helpful to take a step back for a moment.
Courage is a disregard for the unpleasant consequences which come from pursuing faith, hope, love, wisdom, justice and humility. In a world like ours, which is so severely bent toward hatred, sloth and ignorance, the good work of obtaining love and wisdom is an uphill battle. We honor virtue because it is rare, not because it is common. Hatred is easy, love is difficult. Sloth and ignorance come naturally, but wisdom is supernatural.
If we would understand courage, we must first understand that vice which courage transcends, and that vice is cowardice or fear.
The older I get, the more I think that everyone has some great paralyzing fear of something. Some people are afraid of great heights. Some people are afraid of needles. Others are terrified of flying. In some sense, I suppose these are genuine fears, though we often treat them with ease and make light of them. These fears are pretty benign, pretty harmless. More serious, though, are those fears which stand to trample down our spirits. Like the fear of confessing secret sins to those you’ve sinned against. Or the fear God does not love you. Or the fear you do not truly love God.
I would submit to you that all fear— whether it is fear of flying or fear of snakes or fear of confessing some secret sin to your parents— is actually the fear of dying. Death is the most ancient fear or man. Death is the first fear of man. Death is the original punishment for the original sin. We fear not only the death of our bodies, but the death of our good reputations… the death of our privileges, perhaps we even fear losing the love of those we love most. We like to have control and certainty, and we fear anything which might wrench control away from us, anything which challenges our certainty.
It is fascinating to hear students describe what they would try to accomplish with smaller and smaller amounts of time. A few students have said that, with ten years left, they would still go to college and get married. None of them said they would go to college with only a year to live. With a month to live, most students narrowed their lists of things to accomplish to just a few items.
It was also fascinating to hear students realize all the things they wouldn’t do. Many said they wouldn’t watch television or play video games if they found they only had a week to live. The things we think of as being most essential to life seem trivial and absurd when we imagine spending our last hour of life doing them. While sleeping and eating seem so important now, who would have time to eat and sleep knowing now they would not see the noon hour? Most students have said that if they knew they had only a minute to live, they would pray and sing songs to God. No surprise. As you’ve been contemplating the question yourself for the last few minutes, it is probably the answer you’ve come to, as well.
The things we do in this life echo in the life to come. The things we do on earth are fulfilled in heaven. In the City of God, Augustine suggests that in heaven we will no longer hope, but rather we will receive that which we have hoped for. In heaven, we will no longer have faith, but will receive the object of our faith. Death is like a hinge. On this side of death, we desire, and on the other side of death we receive what we have desired. This life is preparation for the life to come; on earth, we store up treasures in a foreign land to which we journey after we die.
Thinking of this life as a preparation for the life to come might transform how we think of those hypothetical lists of objectives… If you are afraid to die, which is to say- if you have fears at all- you might look at those objectives as a means of ridding yourself of fear and cowardice. Acquiring the virtue of courage might be as simple as preparing for your passage into eternal life. And what preparations are the most essential? If given only a few minutes to prepare for the life to come, if given only a few minutes to drum up the courage to go be “present with the Lord,” what do we all know we would do? Sing to God and pray. If you would be courageous in the face of death, of flying, of serpents, of confessing hidden sin, sing to God and pray.
And how often should you sing and pray?
Well, I would suggest that because life is uncertain and there are no guarantees, you ought to set apart time every day for drumming up this courage, for shedding your fears, for preparing for the life to come. You have no idea how soon you’ll need that courage. Anything you do in this life which you’d prefer not to come up again in the life to come is probably making you a coward. And let’s be honest, we live in a world which is rife with entertainment, amusement and distraction. Everyday, there are countless worthless possibilities you must set aside in order to pray, to read your Bible, to sing to God. The world is more than ready to give you a million things to do which make you more afraid of death, less eager for the life to come.
In Revelation 14, St. John hears a voice say: “Write this down: Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!”
What is the hard work from which you desire rest? What are the good deeds which will follow you into that rest?
Sing to God, pray to God, and meditate on God’s goodness. This is fearlessness. This is courage.