I do not think it was particularly related to COVID; but with half a million people dying from coronavirus around the world in the past four months, it has been hard to avoid having a heightened awareness of our mortality.

The email came from a relatively young person; it spoke movingly and profoundly of the experience of fear in the face of death (thanatophobia) and of the search for meaning in life. It ended with the writer asking for help in facing this “existential crisis”.

With my correspondent’s permission, here is my response.

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Dear _______

I am so sorry you are having this difficult and painful challenge. This is a hard question you raise.

I see a number of pieces of real wisdom in your email.

First, you are absolutely right, you are “not alone in having had these thoughts”. Many people struggle with this darkness. What you have articulated here is probably the primal human dilemma. The difference between you and many other people who face this challenge is that you have the honesty to admit it and the courage to face it and to reach out to seek counsel. These are both tremendously important. A lot of people spend their entire lives fleeing the awareness that you have faced head on.

I am sure you are familiar with the multiple ways people seek to escape what you are dealing with here, some more harmful than others. People seek escape in addiction, entertainment, human companionship, money, career, probably even church. The distractions to which we give ourselves to avoid facing the reality of death are multiple. They all share in common to some degree a conscious or unconscious desire to escape facing the inevitability of our mortality.

Second, you refer to “this voice in my head”. That is an essential and vital insight. These thoughts are not you. They are just the mind doing what minds do. Some minds obsess about getting even with their parents, some about getting powerful, some about sex, some about death; the list goes on and on. It is all just the mechanical mind, the perpetual hamster wheel of thought turning and turning. We will never be entirely free of this nasty irritant. But, to the degree that we are able to take it a bit less seriously, it will diminish over the years. It is possible over time to feed this nasty little mind beast less and find nourishment in the open spaces where the paralyzing power of fear has less of a hold.

On the issue of meaning, I think this is really important. What I want to say here may sound odd, but ultimately, I do not think “meaning” is established or found in anything we do. On the level of activity, achievement, accomplishment, or production, life is meaningless. The things of this world are all ephemeral. They come and they go. Our great legacies will one day all be forgotten. The kingdoms we have built will dissolve into dust and be gone leaving little trace behind.

The meaning of life is only Life. Our lives are simply meaningfu regardless of what we do, what we achieve, or how useful or productive we may be. The life of a newborn infant is just as meaningful as the life of a research scientist who is about to discover the vaccine for COVID. We do not create meaning for ourselves. It is simply given by virtue of the fact that we are the recipients of the gift of Life and that we bear this gift in the world.

The other thing I think I would say about all this may also sound a bit counter-intuitive and perhaps even a bit irritating. But, I want to say that this struggle in which you are engaged is a gift. It is a gift that enables depth, strength, wisdom and compassion to grow in your life. It pushes you beneath the surface. If you were able simply to skim along through life with a happy-go-lucky chuckle, you would be less of a person than you are. As Richard Rohr says, the path to real Life lies along the way of great love, or great suffering. I expect you have both, so you are well on your way to a life of real wisdom which I think is already reflected in your words in this email.

Finally, I want to say that, no matter how great our faith, no matter how much we trust in God or whatever we trust in, life is a gamble. I have chosen to gamble my life on the belief that there is more to life than merely this physical time-bound horizontal realm. I experience intimations of this mystery in the beauty I see around me, in the wonder of people, in the love I experience, in the way I am touched and moved by art and by the indomitability of the human sprit, and in the heart-opening I experience in worship. But, I know it is still a gamble. Death is certainly the end of physical life; it may also be the end of all life. But in my experience of Life, there is a dimension of mystery and truth that feels as if it transcends this material plane. And living a life that attempts to open more deeply to this rich transcendent dimension of the invisible hidden mystery at the core of existence, seems a worthwhile endeavour to me.

If you would like to pursue this further, I am open to a conversation in some format that works for you. I have had good conversations over these COVID months on zoom, on the telephone and through email.

Sometimes the journey is hard. But it is my experience that staying the course and persevering with this complex mystery that is Life is worth it.

God Bless you

Christopher