This Is When It’s Time To Die

Photo credit: Hartwig HKD

An Easter morning post in which I start with theology, hit on the death and resurrection archetype a bit, and then explore how dying to what we’re most afraid of might be the crux of trauma healing.

(See what I did there….crux….cross….Easter weekend?)

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For someone who no longers really identifies as “Christian”, I think about resurrection alot. Every single Easter, whether I’ve been in church or not, it’s an event I ponder. Years ago, as a child, it was a story about divine magic….where a good person unfairly killed is brought back to life, and somehow Easter Eggs and bunnies are involved. As I grew older and had heard enough warnings about the straight-line trajectory towards hell I was on if I didn’t make some good decisions and fast, it was a story about someone who was half God-half man who had to die a barbaric death, but in doing so, he gave me a chance to escape hell and retribution from whatever horrible crimes I had unknowingly committed at that young age. My understanding of this story grew and morphed as I entered adulthood, and through the works of N.T. Wright, I came to believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection was less about appeasing a pissed off God the Father and more about breaking power and control held by forces opposed to God and Jesus as the ONE, TRUE, King. Then, gradually, I became an atheist. Not in the popular sense of the word, but rather taking on the belief not in a theistic sort of deity, but rather, Tillich’s Ground of Being….a source or energy or “Is-ness” that permeates and envelops all things. Once I got to that point, I was flummoxed on how to deal with the story of the resurrection or what it meant for me on a personal level. But I always felt that there was something deeper to the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection for me to gather up…..that goes way beyond someone physically dying and returning to physical life in this particular existence.

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Christians tend to think they have a monopoly on deities dying, even by crucifixion, and then being brought to life again. We also tend to think Jesus was the only virgin birth story. Not true. But people can get hung up on these misconceptions and then think that Christianity is completely true, above all other religions or faith systems. While Judaism and Christianity have unique offerings to give the world, they don’t hold a trump card on all things spiritual or ultimate truth. I’ve become pretty convinced that there are multiple paths up the mountain, and they all lead us to the same place at the peak. There’s some deeper metaphor present in that metaphor, but I’ll leave it be for now.

There are many ways to read and interpret religious texts, and to understand great religious heroes. For example, there is a literal reading of the text…where one believes that everything has happened or will happen literally and exactly as described within the pages. This, as many scholars have pointed out, is really the lowest level of approaching texts. Taking everything literally produces a very flat result that is applicable to only a small set of people, or it sets up a dualistic, exclusivist belief system.

The next levels are implied, allegorical, and hidden or mystical levels of meaning in a text. These levels of reading religious texts require more engagement on the part of the reader. The mystical understandings of texts require learning to see and understand in new ways, and often require one to sit with a passage for a long time before any kind of understanding comes. And it’s the mystical level of understanding where you can read many of parts of the Bible, and other texts, and suddenly realize….they’re all pretty much saying the same thing.

So, without diving too deep into alot of this, because also….I’m not an expert in this field, I want to look at a historical interpretation of what happened to Jesus, and then look more broadly at what his story means for each of us to do. And no, its not about saving us from a literal hell if we believe the right things.

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Jesus was born into a peasant class, nothing fancy. It appears he grew up with a penchant for spiritual things and was pretty wise as an adolescent. As an adult, he had some powerful mystical experiences that seemed to solidify his decision to help liberate people who were oppressed not only by the Romans, but by bad religion. He renounced worldly wealth and possessions, and went around tending to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised. In so doing, he pissed off alot of people. The Jewish religious institution was angry because Jesus called them on their crap, and exposed their fake religiosity. The Romans were angry because people who are liberated, even psychologically, en masse, can be a real threat to the stability of a tyrannical empire. Like so many others who have walked similar life paths, the only way for them to deal with the problem of Jesus was to fabricate crimes that he supposedly committed and kill him.

So, Jesus was crucified….again, nothing terribly special about that…it was a common torture tactic used by the Romans. Did he actually rise from the dead….physically? Well, who knows. And honestly, that is kind of a boring question to me now. What is more interesting to me is honestly the fact that a Christian myth grew out of this, and myths often give insight into what is really the truest true. Richard Rohr talks about this alot….that something doesn’t have to be literally true to still be very true.

Jesus’ death and resurrection serve as an archetype…(an archetype is a pattern that periodically shows up among people, that carries alot of wisdom and can give us clues on how to move forward down the path of life.) The first main lesson that I think this story about Jesus is ultimately trying to teach is that even when the physical body dies, the “Is-ness” that was at the fundamental and most basic core of that person, is not destroyed but continues. Is-ness is like energy…or maybe we could actually just call it energy….it can’t be created or destroyed. It just “is”.

A second point of this story, I think, is to explain that overcoming….conquering in life over the things that most hold us back, requires a death. This isn’t a physical death, but rather, a death to the ego, a death to the belief systems we hold, a death to our dreams and all the ways we “think” the world should be, how people “should” have been. Although, I will say that I have personally witnessed this ego death occur in people just days before actual physical death. It was as though they realized what was inevitable, and they suddenly experienced a deep realization that there was no point fighting or grasping or clawing for what they wanted anymore, and so let it all go. When they were able to let go, they immediately become different people…full of peace, lacking any worry, and only able to offer love. Seeing this happen right before my eyes has been one of the most redemptive experiences of my own life.

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Easter came about right when I’ve been doing alot of thinking on trauma and how to heal from it. It’s so easy to suffer abuse or trauma of different forms and stay stuck in a victim mentality. It’s easy to blame others for how you’re struggling and use your pain as an excuse for not moving forward. It’s easy to cower behind our great individual fears and try to isolate ourselves away from every having those fears triggered. And I totally get it. I understand it. No judgment here.

In my personal experience, though, life isn’t about letting us just stay where we are. It won’t have it. Life, at least in my own situations, loves to bring the same lessons around again and again and again until I decide to change my responses.

The other thing about life is that generally speaking, bargaining doesn’t work. We like to treat life as though we are in a social contract….if we do x, then life should offer us y. But there is no contract with life, much to our consternation, other than a great invitation by life to stop clinging to our attachments and engage with whatever comes our way. The book of Job is another great archetypal story, and another book that I really don’t think should be taken literally. Who cares if there was an actual Job? There are a billion Job-like examples that have populated the earth since him and will continue to do so in the future. Job was a righteous man, was wealthy, had a big family, and generally had it made in life. Until everything fell apart and he lost it all, including his health. This book in the Bible actually attributes it to Satan asking permission from God to test Job and see if would turn away from God. (Let’s remember this was the worldview at the time, and not that Satan actually approached God, and God did not flippantly toy with a man’s life just for the hell of it). In my mind, the story of Job was a death and resurrection story just like that of Jesus. I don’t think Job was as concerned about losing all he lost as he was bewildered as to why it would all be taken from him if he had been a good man and had done all the right things.

If you haven’t read the book of Job, go back and read it. But as many will know, Job sat in the dust and ashes, confused and hurt and tormented. His friends tried to offer explanations for what had happened to him. (Many commentators consider his friends to be jerks, but honestly, they were just doing what everyone does….we try to figure out why bad things happen to good people….and often even a bad explanation feels better than no explanation). The book goes on for quite a while with alot of Job pining and his friends pontificating, until finally, God steps in and shuts it all down. And again….I don’t take the text literally. I don’t think God boomed down in an angry voice from heaven that Job had no right to complain because he was just a pansy human being. I think the poetry that describes God’s response was a mystical experience, where somehow, Job was able to let all of his anguish and “need to know” go. Again, this is not a new story. There are so many people who have experienced horrible tragedies and suffering, and at some point, they are able to let go of attachments and the need to understand everything to the nth degree….and they just let life come to them as it will, and they stop wrestling. Somehow they identify with their fundamental “is-ness” within themselves and it changes everything. I think Job had a resurrection on the other side of this death….the literal reading of the story makes it sound like he got all of his wealth back and had more children, but I’m pretty sure that that part of the story is also allegorical. I think it means he found everything he needed on the other side of his ego and attachment death….more of a spiritual and emotional wealth than physical wealth. At least, that’s the way I read the book of Job. Do with it what you will.

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Going back to trauma and core wounds. I’m pretty sure we all have core wounds, and I think trauma just exacerbates the hell out of them, often paralyzing us and cementing us into unhelpful archetypal patterns that we repeat over and over.

I’ve been going to therapy for a billion years, it seems, and have tried all kinds of stuff. The thing is, I know what my core wounds are, I know how they got there, I know what triggers me, I know my stupid patterned responses, and I know what I’m really afraid of in life. But the thing is, just knowing all of this information doesn’t always fix things….it doesn’t always help me make different choices or respond differently to stimuli. Knowledge in the head does not always translate immediately to transformation in the heart and body.

I’ve been realizing over time, that truly getting over trauma and core wounds requires dying. I’m sure I haven’t finished thinking this all through, but I think there are two bigs deaths you have to go through to get better. (I’m generalizing here, I’m not a therapist, and I’m processing myself in this post to work through my own crap….so I ask for grace if my logic doesn’t entirely add up).

  1. The first death, is the death of being able to keep going back into your past and hashing up every single memory of the people and things that hurt you, and trying to process every one. Now, having done therapy for said billion years, there is definitely a time and need to go into the past and look at things head on, acknowledging what was done to you and how it hurt you. But, as my current therapist and I have talked about, at some point in your journey, you have to let the past go. You have to let go of the urge to remember and process every horrible thing that had ever been done to you, or to gain more and more validation ammunition against your perpetrators for wrongs. At some point, doing this just stops being useful and it keeps you from moving forward. And, I’m pretty sure the ego begins to love it at some point and attaches to the dopamine hit of being able to pinpoint one more time when someone hurt you and you were in the right and they the wrong. Yeah, they were in the wrong….they hurt you, sometimes attrociously. But you’re not there anymore and you have this great invitation to live the life before you without paying those people any more mind. But, again, this feels like a death, for a while.
  2. A second death I see in healing from core wounds/fears is that I think we have to face out greatest fears by dying to our constant striving to keep them from happening. We have to allow those fears to actually potentially come about, and find out if we can make it to the other side.

I should say upfront, I don’t like this second point at all. But I am feeling more and more certain lately that this is the place I have arrived to in my own life. Here’s a little transparency. My greatest fears of all time are that people will abandon me/ forget me and that I will be alone (and in my mind, there is a belief that being alone is a bad thing). These two fears were totally exacerbated by trauma in my childhood, and so they have become these two big monsters I fight on a daily basis. I struggle hard with anxious attachment to people. I work way too hard with way too crazy of a schedule, sometimes doing ridiculous things, in hopes that if I keep doing things to prove my usefulness in the world, I won’t be forgotten. I can go way over the top doing things for people, inconveniencing myself tremendously without good boundaries, because I think if I provide some value to people I’m in relationship with, they’ll do a cost-benefit analysis and decide they’re getting too much good out of me to outright abandon me.

These are totally irrational fears, I know. The important people in my life….the ones that really love me, have not forgotten or abandoned me. The ones who have abandoned me, were never really there for me in the first place…..they were basically just ghosts in my life. But again, I know these things in my head….but they haven’t quite made it to my heart, yet.

I’ve been listening to an amazing podcast called This Jungian Life lately, and several of the episodes enabled me to have a come to Jesus meeting with myself. Basically, the conclusion was that all of my grasping and striving and working myself to the bone hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I can’t make people stay in my life if they don’t want to be there. Yet I do these things because the possibility of being completely forgotten or abandoned (OR WORSE: BEING BLOWN OFF OR COMPLETELY IGNORED), makes me think (albeit irrationally) that I will physically die. The second half of my conclusion was one of those deep gut knowings that it’s time for me to die to the grasping and striving. To let myself die to the fear of physically dying from being forgotten and left alone. Basically, the only way I can heal from my trauma and wounds is to give space for those exact fears TO HAPPEN. To allow myself to be forgotten. To allow myself to be abandoned. To allow myself to potentially be left alone. Right now, I can’t see any other way forward but to consciously make the choice to die to the ability to keep scrambling to protect myself and curate life the way I think it needs to be for me to be OK.

Ugh. I don’t want to do this. But, what I’m currently doing isn’t really working, I’m wicked exhausted, and if anything, my trying to avoid my traumas is only continuing to attract people who are more than willing to abandon me or ignore me.

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Transitioning back to the archetypal Jesus. Jesus knew that he was about to die….that it was an inevitable next step in his journey. And it was a painful thing for him to acknowledge as well, so I feel a little comforted. I mean, who likes to die, even if just figuratively. When he was in Gethsemane, he asked God that if there was any way possible, to please provide an alternative.

Then, as you all know, he was tortured and then crucified, and the Scriptures make it pretty clear that he felt the immense agony of having to face that death alone, and he couldn’t even find God in it. The familiar comfort, the Divine assurance he’d always had, was taken away.

This is a sub-archetypal story I’ve heard so many spiritual teachers allude to. These deaths….the deaths of ego and clinging to things that feel certain….these are the deaths you have to do alone. And sometimes you have to let go of any assurance that things will be OK in the end and you’ll resurrect on the other side. If I let go of my grasping, will I be forgotten? Will I end up alone for the rest of my life? Will my life even matter? Shoulders shrug.

So, this then, is my ultimate takeaway, mostly for myself, in this post on Easter Sunday: the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the hope, not that we will be spared from a literal hell or get to go to a literal heaven. It is the archetypal promise, offered by so many others as well, that the deaths we have to go through on our journeys are hard and painful and lonely, but they aren’t in vain. When we allow those things that scare us most to be possibilities in our lives, they lose their power and we resurrect on the other side with a greater knowing of our “is-ness”, and the ability to welcome, accept, and maybe even love whatever life brings to us because we know we’re going to be OK.

At least, this is what I’m pretty sure about. I’ve experienced alot of little resurrections in the past, so I’m doing my best to trust that I’ll come out OK on the other side of this things that feels like a huge, scary death to me. It’s my resolve this particular Easter to stop grasping and clinging, to allow the dying process to strip away what isn’t real, and to hope for that resurrection.

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