Last Spring I started watching the show Vikings that airs on the History Channel, and one of the most striking things for me about the show is how there is no fear of death in Viking culture. An example of this can be found in an episode when an old man asks to go on the raid that is coming up in the spring so that he can die in battle and go to Valhalla and drink with the gods. This belief was so embedded in his mind that it affected his actions to the extent that he was trying to die in battle and considered himself cursed by the gods that this had not happened to him. And if you’re curious, he does indeed die in battle in the episode following his introduction into the series and the main character of the series, Ragnar Lothbrok, smiles, confident that his friend is indeed drinking with the gods.
I also recently re-watched the movie 300. The Spartans that marched out to meet the Persians also showed no fear of death. In fact, much like the aforementioned Viking, they too seemed to welcome death since Leonidas told his soldiers on the final day of the battle to eat a good breakfast because they were going to dine in Hell that night.
After watching these I began to think upon Christian culture, and more specifically the Christian culture of the past. In the days of the early Church many saints welcomed martyrdom at the hands of their persecutors. And when Christianity became legal and martyrdom was no longer an option the monastic movement began and offered a way for those who wished to be martyrs, but were not being persecuted, a way to “die” for their faith.
Then I began to think about my current American culture and I realized that instead of welcoming death, we fear death. In fact, this fear of death seems to be one of the things fueling our rising healthcare costs (see this 60 minutes clip: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-cost-of-dying/). How is it possible that ancient cultures seemed to have no fear of death, with some even welcoming it, while us modern day Americans are petrified of it?
My conclusion is rather simple: our culture does not teach us that death is the biggest problem in life. Our culture teaches us that pain is the biggest problem in life, and death is naturally the biggest pain of all. So we put much of our time and resources into trying to avoid any and all types of pain. We go to college so that we can have good paying jobs and be financially secure so that we can live comfortably and our family can live comfortably as well. When we get terminally ill we pull out all the stops in an effort to live as long as possible, even if it is only a few days longer at a cost of $10,000 or more. All this is done, I think, in an effort to avoid as much pain as possible. I disagree with my culture on many things, but this may perhaps be the biggest disagreement of all. This teaching focuses our energy and attention on avoiding something that we will never be able to avoid no matter how hard we try. Our culture should instead teach us that pain and death are things that will happen to us and teach us to embrace them.
The main problem that life produces for me is the problem of death. Nothing is quite as terrifying to me as thinking about my own inevitable death. Every other problem that life produces I think I could deal with without too much issue, but death is something that causes a major problem for me because there is no way that I can possibly avoid it.
Right now I am being pushed against my will towards the cliff of death. But I don’t want to be pushed. I want to run towards it as fast as I can and jump off and greet whatever awaits on the other side with open arms. Can I be a Viking? Can I be a Spartan? Can I be a Christian?