The first day of my sabbatical. Thirty books to start on – two months to read as much as possible. I am afraid there's going to be an awful lot of book stuff on this blog in the next few weeks. (Enjoying Lucy Hughes-Hallett's The Pike today.)
Then there's the closing of the January transfer window with Liverpool having bought nobody to strengthen an inadequately broad enough squad. Oh dear.
But, what has grabbed my attention is an article I picked up yesterday on the Die Zeit website. Written by Ulrich Greiner (publisher of Zeitliteratur magazine) and sparked by the announcement that novelist Henning Mankell has decided to record in print his 'journey with cancer', the piece is headed “Man sollte diskret sterben” – one should die discreetly. His point? This sort of description of suffering is essentially narcissistic.
Apparently, Mankell has decided to record his “fight against cancer” (a term commonly used, but essentially meaningless, and one that betrays a pile of assumptions) and to report on progress. He has said: “I want to describe exactly how it is,” and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has decided to publish it in instalments.
So what? After all, there are loads of examples of prominent people who feel the need to tell the world of their expereince of dying. Greiner argues that we live in an 'era of confessions' (im Zeitalter der Bekenntnisse) and that these are seen as a proof of courage.
However, Greiner thinks that filling bookcases with such stuff demonstrates the opposite of courage: courage would be evidenced by discretion. He goes on to assert that this pressure to confess is proof only that the once self-evident boundary between intimacy and publicity (privacy and openness) has now disappeared. If you must spill this stuff into the public sphere, then write a decent novel, he says. Otherwise, keep your sufferings to yourself – pouring it out in print is just narcissism and doesn't achieve anything useful.
Well, I sympathise with Greiner. The hungry media beast can't get enough of 'confessional' material. The publishing industry needs such stuff because people will buy it. Fair enough. But, Greiner has a point about self-referential narcissism: for whom is the account of one's own suffering or dying actually written? In order to help humanity address its mortality? Or as a form of fearful catharsis?
Clearly, the boundary between private and public, intimacy and publicity, has long since disappeared. Look at teenagers' outpourings on social media. Look at anyone's outpourings on social media, for that matter. Not everything should be open and public; some things in human lives and relationships should be kept private and intimate. To lose the distinction means losing something of human integrity. The mere fact that millions of people want to gorge on the self-disclosures (or snooped disclosures) of other people does not in and of itself justify it being done.
However, Greiner is perhaps missing one or two perspectives here. Perhaps the reason people want to read this stuff – and, therefore, sufferers want to write it – is simply that most of us do not find the mystery of mortality easy to live with. Coming to terms with suffering and dying – outside of the control we crave over our lives and resistant to our technological hubris – is not always easily handled in a culture that sees death as an enemy as opposed to a necessary part of life. How do we process this 'coming to terms with dying' in a culture that has lost its communal rituals and lacks a vocabulary for dealing with mortality? Perhaps we need stories and confessions and narratives that offer some incarnated processing of what internally we cannot shape.
Maybe I am missing the point too. I have never been afraid of death or dying and have never seen death as anything other than an integral part of what it means to live. I don't want to die, but I have no desire to 'fight' it. Christian faith is rooted in both the essential contingency of mortality – something God opts into at Christmas and does not exempt himself from – and the conviction that if God raised Christ from being truly dead, then there is hope.
I am really not bothered what happens to me after I die (there is possibly a PhD to be written in exploring the narcissism of individual conversion based on fear of hell). My hope is simply not in a formula or a guarantee, but in the person of the God who raised Christ. The rest is detail. And there is too much of life to enjoy and endure without being obsessed with the detail of personal interest.
Some will object to this. Fair enough – I can only tell it as it is. But, I can also say it is utterly liberating to be grasped by a gospel (good news) of life than one rooted in a fear of death. Christmas was about “God surprising earth with heaven”; Easter will demonstrate what it can mean to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear. The journey from one to the other puts flesh and blood and character and relationships and challenges and choices onto the theology. And that is what our churches are – or should be – working through in their preaching and liturgies and conversations.