What Lies Beyond: A Reading List About Life and Death

On Thursday, I got two new tattoos. One was impulsive; the other, planned. The latter is above my right knee, in small print, all-caps: REDEEM THE TIME. It’s something my favorite English professor used to drawl in class. It’s from the book of Ephesians: “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, / Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” 

The days are evil because they will come to an end. In Christianity, mortality is a result of mankind’s fall from grace. Before Adam and Eve partook in the Garden of Eden, they were destined to live forever. No more. Everyone dies.

If I dwell too long on my own mortality, I have a panic attack. I have to come at death sideways–through headlines about celebrities, say, or poetry. How can something so real and (relatively) imminent feel so unreal? And then, you get the call—from the doctor, the police, your mother, whomever. It doesn’t matter who calls; the call will come.

So I got a second tattoo, because it’s all going to end. It’s a three-inch blade turned down towards my ankle, modeled after Joan of Arc’s sword. “I know it’s cliche,” I joked to Emily, and she smiled but didn’t deny it. I texted a picture to my friend. “You’re a warrior,” she sent back. I don’t know about that.

On Saturday, I’ll join thousands of people at the Women’s March on Washington. I can’t say I’m not afraid. I’m afraid of our president-elect and his supporters. My ever-present anxiety regardign death has my brain concocting bizarre and terrifying scenarios in which the march on Jan. 21 become a massacre. I am afraid my first protest will be my last. I know I am not alone in my fear, and I don’t want to let my fear of death hold me back.

The stories I’ve included this week are about eternal life and the fear we feel while contemplating the lack thereof.

1. “Contemplating Death at the Edge of the Continent.” (Laura Turner, Catapult, January 2017)

Laura Turner is one of my favorite essayists. Like me, she lives with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. In her newest essay, she meditates on her anxiety about death while on silent retreat at New Camaldoli Hermitage. In the final episode, Turner writes, “Are we, in our loneliness, more alike than we are different? That is the only consolation.”

2. “Immortality Instinct.”(Natalie Emmons, Aeon, July 2015)

Cognitive developmental psychologist Natalie Emmons details the project she undertook with two different groups of children in Ecuador to determine whether our proclivity for eternalism is innate. A fascinating read with fascinating conclusions.

3. “The Evangelical Scion Who Stopped Believing.”  (Mark Oppenheimer, The New York Times Magazine, December 2016)

Some people find God after their near-death experiences. It was the opposite for Bart Campolo. If his last name sounds familiar, it’s because Bart is the son of Tony Campolo, left-leaning evangelical powerhouse, lecturer, and founder of the Red-Letter Christians. Bart, however, identifies as a secular humanist. A terrifying cycling accident forced him to reckon with his life’s truth and what he understood about the afterlife, or lack thereof. Now, he serves as a humanist chaplain for university students, synthesizing his ministry skills and his dedication to the here and now.

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I’d also like to link to “Against Confession: On Intersectional Feminism, Radical Catholicism, and Redefining Remorse” by Laura Goode, a Longreads original essay that we published earlier this week.