Today my boss brought brownies to work, so I went into the kitchen to procure one for myself. I thought I was alone, and I stood there for a minute devouring it and really enjoying it, and then I turned around, expression of brownie bliss still on my face, licking my fingers. The conference room across the hall, which is almost always empty, was full of people, and three people were staring at me through the window. Oops. Hi, guys! I just smiled and skedaddled.

Star Wars subway stunt, by the Improv Everywhere crew.
Eric Whiteacre’s Virtual Choir. Exquisite.

Yesterday and today were a very odd mixture of busyness at work, time-wastage online (Learnfrommyfail.com sucks you in), and mind-stretching ideas with C.S. Lewis. I’ve finished Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, and I’m about 2/3 through That Hideous Strength At first I thought that I liked Perelandra best, but I’ve since changed my mind; even though each can be read independently, I find myself building on thoughts and ideas I had in the earlier books, and Lewis himself weaves in so many associations with the previous works that the whole thing feels to me like one unified book. I am in awe of Lewis’ mind. It reminds me a bit of Dr. Thomas; I feel like for every connection between ideas that I make, there are three more that I’m missing, and his mind leaps to the next one effortlessly as I try to cling to his coattails for the ride. (Lewis is usually considerably clearer than Dr. Thomas, though, I must admit.)

A strange thing happened as I was starting chapter six of That Hideous Strength. I read the line, “The man looked at him as if out of a dream, as if divided from him by an immense distance, but with a sort of dreamy distaste which might turn into active hatred if ever that distance were diminished.” I was suddenly absolutely convinced that I had read that exact line before, and I remembered it perfectly clearly. I read a sentence or two further, and it came to me: about four years ago I was wandering around the community college library when I stumbled across a copy of That Hideous Strength. I thought about checking it out, and I flipped through it a little, and it fell open to that page. I only read a line or two before going to the front of the book and discovering that it was third in the trilogy. I hate reading books out of order, so I put it back until I could find the first book. It’s very odd to have a vividly clear memory of something you’d entirely forgotten suddenly pop into your mind like that, and it’s odder still to remember one relatively unimportant line so strongly.

Reading Lewis makes me think about death, but in the best possible way (and such a way does exist, I think). I’m intrigued by how we, as a species, think of death and decay. In older times, death was always close at hand. People certainly possessed a strong fear of death, but the actual, tangible side of dying was a reality they faced every day. If a family member became mortally ill, you nursed them as they declined. You saw the process of degeneration, and when it was over, you prepared the body for the funeral rites. You knew you had to bury (or burn, depending on your culture) the body within a certain amount of time before decay set in. It was very sad, very gross, and very human, but this was just the method of things, how things had to be dealt with.

Today we have a certain horror of the process of death. Some of this may be due to increased knowledge of germs and what exactly is going on in the body as it declines, I think. (The plague wouldn’t freak you out in quite the same way if you didn’t know how you could catch it–it would just be a thing that happened to you, like getting rained on.) But mostly we’re scared of the process because we’re so detached from it that it doesn’t feel real to us. When a family member gets sick, they go to the hospital, where their dying is made as sanitary as possible. When they die, their body is made into a poor, vaguely creepy imitation of life, not by their family, but by people whose job in life is to prepare bodies for viewings at funerals. They’re sealed in expensive coffins or cremated and stored in urns on mantlepieces. Death itself loses its place in the reality of our day-to-day life.

Detachment from reality, from a very important part of being a human being, isn’t right. I don’t mean that we should all go out and be gravediggers or revel at all in the morbid side of things, but I do think it’s vital to think about death, in a healthy way, and not pretend that it doesn’t exist. We’ve made it easy to forget for a while, at least in the technologically and medically advanced countries. We still have the fear of death (in terms of cessation of life) that people in ancient times did, but now the process of dying is made more fearful because it is unknown.

And then I was reading Lewis, and somehow a few other ideas got connected to the first one. The ancients accepted death calmly because their lives forced them to do so, but perhaps that’s the opposite swing of the pendulum from our current detachment, and perhaps it is equally wrong. I think our repugnance towards death and the process of dying points back to the earliest of times and the knowledge that this was not originally how things were meant to be. Death is younger than we are, if you think of it biblically. Corruption and decay were not intended to be in this world, and maybe we feel the difference now in ourselves, between what might have been and what is. Fearing it is wrong, because as Christians it is not a fearful thing to us, but to harbor too accepting of a view of it (something I keep running into within Christian circles) is also wrong. While it is an eventual gate to other, better things, and thus something we can be at peace with, death is not a friend. It is an acquaintance with whom we must deal. Just because it’s a part of life now doesn’t make it right, but because it is a part of life now we have to acknowledge it and deal with it correctly. Which is, of course, so very much easier said than done.

Well, enough of that for one night! I’m pretty sure I’ve contradicted myself several times in all of that, so apparently I’m still working out what I think.

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