Remember you are dust
Children’s book spoiler alert!
I have many warm memories reading the children’s book The Monster at the End of this book with my son Sam. The blue fuzzy Sesame Street’s Grover stars in the book, aware that there is a monster at the end, and every page turned gets you closer to this dreaded being. The resistance to turning pages involves begging and threats, string, nails and planks, pleading, and finally relief when we discover that there is no monster at all, just Grover himself. And we were so scared, the book ends, sheepishly.
Today, for Christians, is Ash Wednesday, the day Lent begins, and we enter a journey to more fully accept grace, to amend our lives, to seek more trust and reliance on God. It is a strange day because we are so conditioned to be strong, self-reliant, even good. Stranger still because we do everything we can, ordinarily, to avoid vulnerability, to choose it strategically as a tool, to be cushioned against our mortality. But Ash Wednesday is an invitation to be vulnerable, as COVID has also been. We are invited to see ourselves as we are, to accept the reality of our mortality and to deny the illusion of immortality, to read the end of the book instead of nailing the pages together so we never get there. Covid has made it necessary to protect ourselves and other better, even while it has made our vulnerability more evident.
In Monday’s Washington Post, Marc Fisher wrote an article illuminating the historical ties between pandemic fear and extremism, from the medieval era to the current moment, acknowledging that outbreaks of disease often accelerate extremist movements. My own heart knows this to be true. We grasp at ideas and movements, anything to make us feel big and strong and invulnerable, to keep us from turning pages and getting to the end.
We go about our lives ignoring or avoiding the obvious, pretending not to see—that today might be our last. Many philosophers and sociologists like Ernst Becker have demonstrated our denial of death, our refusal to own up to our own mortality, all the tricks we play on ourselves and others—like us-and-them thinking, like extremism, terrorism, proliferation of guns, even war. All of these can be connected to our own denial and resistance of our own mortality and vulnerability.
We know that many young people feel immortal, and invulnerable. As my knees ache, I know this to be partly true and also valuable for them. But acceptance of mortality is a great gift. As we accept that “we are dust and to dust we will return”, we can embrace the gift of a day, a breath, a friend, a rest. We can be unafraid of our own love and glory, unpretentious before the Creator, without shame and without worry.
Keep turning pages, my friends, without fear. We are vulnerable, mortal, frail. The full face of our mortality will keep us more alive, vulnerable to the joys and hurts of the world; it will keep our hearts soft and available, without denial or fear. It will, day by day, year by year, remind us that are real and whole as we are, and as we become.