Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden while the serpent tempts Eve

The Shadow of Death

Spring 1990. I was turn­ing sev­en years old, and I was open­ing presents at Dad’s house where only a few months ear­li­er I had wished on a turkey wish­bone for a Nin­ten­do system.

My wish came true, and Mom let me set the new game sys­tem up on the extra tele­vi­sion in her room. I became a video gamer. Well, at least in the sense that I was hold­ing a con­troller and inter­act­ing with the system.

I loved The Leg­end of Zel­da — the orig­i­nal one — but look­ing back, a rather curi­ous thing hap­pened: I did­n’t play that game to win, but to think. I would­n’t have known what I was doing then, but I med­i­tat­ed over that game.

About death.

I could­n’t help it, nor did I real­ly want to, but my thoughts kept push­ing them­selves toward death and what it meant to die. I, in all my child­ish naïvety, tried to imag­ine what death was like, what it would mean to sud­den­ly stop expe­ri­enc­ing, well, any­thing. I strug­gled to under­stand obliv­ion, with­out know­ing what the hell “obliv­ion” even was.

Despite some inter­ac­tions with church­es, the thought of there being an after­life rarely entered into the meditations.

My grand­ma died, and with her pass­ing, death became real to me, no longer an abstract but a loom­ing threat.

That was before I was ten years old. I was able to move past the med­i­ta­tions as a num­ber of changes hap­pened in life, result­ing in a new school, a new envi­ron­ment, and good friends who I spent time with out­side of school.

Quite a while would pass, with death or the won­der­ings about obliv­ion nev­er creep­ing up in my mind, despite both of my grand­fa­thers dying dur­ing these years.

I’d vis­it a few church­es semi-reg­u­lar­ly through­out this time, most­ly as an excuse to spend time with friends; still, this was enough, I think, to cause me to take for grant­ed that death led to an afterlife.

Sum­mer 2001. (A Faith Odyssey?) I went all-in on the church/faith expe­ri­ence result­ing in a dou­bling (or per­haps qua­dru­pling) down on the idea that after death comes an even greater life.

There were no med­i­ta­tions, no rumi­na­tions upon what it is to be mor­tal, to be inex­orably des­tined to die. There exist­ed only the strong belief that obliv­ion did­n’t exist, that death was mere­ly the door­way by which we are trans­lat­ed into either Heav­en or Hell.

Spring 2006. Five years into my time as a Chris­t­ian. I was watch­ing V for Vendet­ta at the the­ater. For what­ev­er rea­son, dur­ing a poignant mon­tage involv­ing Natal­ie Port­man’s Evey, the strong­hold belief in an after­life shat­tered with­in me.

I missed a lot of what would hap­pen in the next sev­er­al moments of the movie as wave after wave of old fears flood­ed back into me, par­a­lyz­ing me in my seat, ter­ror­iz­ing my mind with vivid thoughts of obliv­ion, thoughts which were all too famil­iar and yet for which I was alto­geth­er unpre­pared to deal with.

A few more years would pass dur­ing which I would call myself a Chris­t­ian, a peri­od dur­ing which I’d work dou­bly hard not only to con­vince oth­ers that Chris­tian­i­ty was real, but to con­vince myself as well. I found solace in expe­ri­ences which seemed spir­i­tu­al. I did every­thing I could to sup­press my fears, every­thing except the same med­i­ta­tions which I once “prac­ticed” as a child, med­i­ta­tions which led not to fear but to attempts at understanding.

Sum­mer 2007. My grand­moth­er died. To be sure, I had griev­ed at least a year ear­li­er, when the real­iza­tion set in that my grand­ma was already gone, a vic­tim to mul­ti­ple strokes which robbed her of her self. Were I in the med­i­tat­ing way, I no doubt would have spent much time try­ing to rec­on­cile life with loss of self and what that actu­al­ly means for, well, “eter­ni­ty.”  Grand­ma’s pass­ing was not marked by the sort of sad mourn­ing which seemed typ­i­cal of death, but instead we cel­e­brat­ed Grand­ma’s life at a memo­r­i­al ser­vice in an art cen­ter which she had patron­ized. I set aside my fun­da­men­tal­ist tee­to­tal­ing ways and drank my first drink of wine — of any alco­holic bev­er­age — in her hon­or, along with the rest of the room.

Fall 2010. Read­ing the Bible sans study guides or the­olo­gies. I hap­pened on Deuteron­o­my 22, par­tic­u­lar­ly the part of it which pre­scribes what was to hap­pen in dif­fer­ent rape sit­u­a­tions. I read that the God of the Bible thought it best to demand a man who rapes a vir­gin to mar­ry her with­out the pos­si­bil­i­ty of divorce, a short, rather eas­i­ly missed pas­sage which nul­li­fied in an instant my belief in the Chris­t­ian God.

But I could­n’t ascent to athe­ism. Athe­ism meant death was every­thing I had always feared it to be. With­out Chris­tian­i­ty, I naïve­ly called myself a pagan for a few months, before final­ly real­iz­ing that I was, in fact, an athe­ist. I had to be brave in the face of cer­tain oblivion.

This month. My step-dad very unex­pect­ed­ly passed away. He had been a con­stant in my life for over a decade. I was at the funer­al; I touched the casket.

Still, it does­n’t seem real.

I’m almost thir­ty-three years old now, strug­gling to find per­spec­tive on events which I more brave­ly faced as a boy aim­less­ly explor­ing the forests of Hyrule, entire­ly unin­ter­est­ed in the main quest, need­ing only an idle back­drop against which my mind could strug­gle to understand.

Unlike child­hood, though, I’ve now had the unfor­tu­nate oppor­tu­ni­ty to explain death to my preschool-aged daugh­ter. She remem­bers her grand­pa in her heart, and it’s so very sweet to hear her talk about him

I’d trade most any­thing for such an inno­cent understanding.

That’s where I’m at today, at six­es and sev­ens — or com­plete con­fu­sion. In ret­ro­spect, it’s no won­der that my favorite Bible verse dur­ing my Chris­t­ian years was 1 Corinthi­ans 15:55.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

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Rick Beckman