Befriending death

“When I myself am able to befriend death, I will be able to help others do the same” (Henry Nouwen, 1994:23)
The idea of “befriending death” may sound strange to many – and even to Christians, who believe in an afterlife. Because we live in an era where death is something we try to avoid at all costs. Death reminds us of failure. We are success driven, even in our faith. So many preachers constantly remind us to “just have more faith” (to be successful in our faith). So much energy goes into promoting miracles (a sign of successful faith and prayer), that the idea of befriending death feels strange – something we can not even imagine.
Society often connects dying with a move from action, passion, fruitfulness and success to a stage of lethargy, fruitlessness, dependency and even uselessness. This has to do with the way we view others’ contribution to society – and, of course, think about our own contribution.
To befriend death will actually give us a different attitude to life. It does not mean giving up on life, but to look at it from a different perspective. To consider and accept the process of befriending death, we can still enjoy life and be full of energy, but will live with an awareness and appreciation of the other side of life. Accepting the actual process of dying, where there is less energy, less economic output and perhaps even dependency, means to accept a view where success is not measured in terms of economic output and social contributions.
It is not only us as individuals who should befriend death, but also society. A society that befriends death will be a more caring society. If we view the process of dying, and dying itself, as an opportunity to embrace our dependency on one another instead of viewing it as failure, we embrace an opportunity to learn from those who can no longer contribute to the economy.
Most of the time, dying puts us in a position where others do to us whatever they think is good for us. What and how they do it may be experienced by us as good or bad. But it is the actual dependency that is the worst part for many people.
Befriending death is another way of looking at life and making our peace with those aspects in ourselves that do not shout “strength”, and with all that society may call our “weaknesses”. In a different context, in 1 Cor 1:27-31, Paul discussed how God changed the Corinthians:
27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (NIV)
Paul himself had to discover that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). Befriending death means we will help each other to discover our fruitfulness in our weakness. And how we can have a meaningful life even when we are dependent on others.
This process should not wait until we physically face death, are terminally ill or old in years. Ideally, we should approach this while we are still full of energy, at a time when we may think we are still independent and “strong”.
Frederik B O Nel
January 2017