15.1.18

The Abundant Life of a Broken Heart 2: On Dying

 
In living with the particular broken heartedness that is anxiety, I have tried to be very intentional about the 'living' part, that I wrote about last time. But there is also something to say about dying.

For me (I will make this caveat a lot, because I want you to know that everyone's journey is different, and I don't want you to assume another's journey with anxiety is the same), there are two ways in which I experience the concept of dying. Firstly, and commonly I believe for the anxious, when I am in a high state of anxiety, a panic attack for example, or a long phase of 'higher than usual' chronic anxiety, I might actually think I'm dying, right there, or that I have a non curable illness. In my teenage years I spent a lot of the time thinking I had a brain tumour - not helped by the physical symptoms brought on by what I now know to be anxiety: headaches, lack of focus, forgetfulness. Ongoing anxiety over long periods of time can end in hypochondria for me. Something that is useful to know, so that I can talk to my soul in gentleness, humour and a good pinch of 'you will die, but probably not right now, and it's probably just a headache'.

I also find myself much less tolerant of the compartmentalisation of the human person. The dismissal of some dis-eases as 'psychosomatic' (and therefore fake). One of the benefits of having the reflective/anxious mind that I do, is that I have seen the interaction of mind body soul in such a way that I no longer find it simple to separate our human personhood. We are never simply physical or mental or spiritual. We are human. I blame Plato for this western preoccupation with analysing human existence into building blocks.

Some call issues with anxiety a 'mental' health issue. And yet I feel it in my body and soul. It is not simply how I think. Sometimes my mind makes my body rigid or tremble, I might struggle to know how to be 'in' my body. I find it interesting that one of the bodily symptoms of stress is chest pain, often muscular, or palpitations, from the reptilian brain telling the adrenal gland to fire into action. People often think they're having a heart attack. And often what makes me 'well' is to concentrate on my breath. To sit with my feet planted on the ground, rooted in creation, connected with the creator in a very physical way. Or when I go to my dance class, and I can feel every bit of my body, how I move, delight in the body, I'm reminded of being a body who is alive because of the breath of life, the spark of life which has been gifted to me, and all creation. My body does not simply carry my brain or soul around, my body is somehow an expression of my very self. And what I do with my body is inextricable from who I am in my mind and soul. If you need any convincing just read the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians and pay particular attention to chapter 15.

This link between anxiety and the fear of dying must also of course stimulate reflection on the reality of dying. For we will all die. In fact sometimes I have observed that the anxious are at least not in denial about this. The joy of living that I experience is sometimes hard won, sometimes it slips from me, but it also is never superficial and is perhaps because, not in spite of, the fact I know I will die.

This takes me on to the second way in which the idea of dying impacts me. And that is the very real, mind body soul, reality, that in order to live, I must die. I guess this is what Paul talks about as dying to self. We often interpret this as about being less selfish. Perhaps this makes us feel better about the dying part. But for me this is a real death. It has been about the image I hold in my head of who I am. One of the hardest things to allow to die is the idea of being strong or invulnerable somehow. Of being self sufficient, independent. When I had my first acute period of anxiety and took medication to help alleviate the constant adrenalin rush, I told myself that it was pure circumstance that had somehow knocked me off balance. The second time, well... there were some circumstances, but…
I began to think about the reality of me. Of how 'I' was reacting to my circumstances. That I might accept, even value, the vulnerability that I clearly have. And in this growing accepting of this vulnerability (still in process), there is a dying involved. I had to let go of a self which ancient philosophy, modern psychotherapy and the mystics call 'the false self', because this is the only way to live.  To allow resurrection.

It is still difficult for me. I kinda like the 'old woman' I thought I was. And sometimes she is more comfortable and safe. This is false of course, but it takes energy to resist her. Although I think I mostly know now that she isn't real.

And I know that Resurrection is true and is coming. Because I have experienced resurrection with a small 'r' and it’s given me a foretaste and a longing. And there are days, they come more often, where I really do know myself dead and alive.
 

1 COR 15 REFLECTION
For a long time I have loved 1Cor15. The images of death as the gateway to life have resonated strongly with the reality of my own life and that proclamation of v31 'I die everyday!' delights me.
As if when I awake, my first breath is my dying breath. Breathing out the 'old woman' who suffocates me and breathing in the Breath who brings me to life.
Paul's assertion of the bodily resurrection is so readily missed in our contemporary Christian story. Even though bodies have begun to be recovered in our resurrection theology, most people still have this view that heaven is floaty spirit creatures.
But for me the death of the acorn and the birth of the oak tree is so thrilling. The tree has everything to do with the acorn and yet who would have the imagination that the one grew from the other? And in the body, the wrinkles and grey hairs that are appearing as a sign of my movement towards this real life, are glorious.  The anti-aging movement is a disgrace really - it is offering a pseudo-youth, which is in fact real death, a denial of the truth that aging, dying, is a sign of living, and Life. And don't we see that the tree is surely more solid, real, lasting than the seed. The seed is beautiful but its purpose is always to be the place of nurture from which the tree explodes!
Our life now though, is not simply a dying.  We are not here as some waiting room for the real thing, it could be easy to misinterpret that and many have.  Many have said that what we do and who we are now is of no real consequence, but that is far from what Paul is saying. Resurrection as Paul states, starts now. Each day the choice is before us. To begin the dying so that we might begin, now, to live. 'I die every day!'

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