Take Me Away From All This Death
And other silly requests we make of life’s vampires, Halloween and the hard work of Becoming Fully Human
The snow is piled on my deck, five inches of it, and the awning is frozen shut. At just before five, this October morning, just a few days from Halloween, is silent, brooding. Bare branches creak against my windows as a sharp-toothed wind cuts the neighborhood. You can easily imagine burning, bright, hungry eyes in the last of the bushes, stubbornly refusing to give up their dead leaves to the coming winter.
Blood suckers, lying in the wait in the terrible cold, waiting for a crack in the window.
At the beginning of the season (which for TJ Maxx, which puts pumpkins out in early July, for crying out loud) I watch my favorite scary movies. Among them, including the great animated classic The Nightmare Before Christmas, I include the 1992 classic by Francis Ford Coppola, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
It’s not just that Dracula had such a superb cast (if you will forgive, as most of us did, the horrible attempts at English accents by the otherwise terrific Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder, but I digress), it was lush and gorgeous and sexy as hell.
A particular scene came to mind this morning, since I saw the movie the other night. More honestly, it was playing in the background as I unpacked from five weeks in Mongolia. Dracula has cornered the sweet, innocent Mina in her bedroom while our heroes are out hunting him in a graveyard. She’s completely seduced. As they start the process of ending of her human life and the beginning of her eternal imprisonment as a vampire, Dracula pulls away, not wanting to condemn her to such a horrific existence. A brief moment of grace in this tormented creature, merciful, an act of love. To this she says:
The reason this scene sticks with me is because it speaks to our deep attraction to the idea of escaping.
Beam me up, Scotty.
Get me out of here. Please.
Take me away from all this death.
Not just death. The cold, hard, painful work of being human, which is what Mina is addressing here. She perceives that her love will whisk her away to a place where she doesn’t have to deal, even as she herself will be dealing out, horrific death for all eternity.
This is hardly an escape from death, but a guarantee to swim in it forever. There’s a message in that, I think. Whatever we resist, persists, as an old friend of mine used to say.
Yet in that moment, all Mina cares about is herself and the perfect life she perceives that Dracula proffers. She is completely bamboozled and about to head down a path that, it might be argued, she might at some point rather regret. We’re all a bit impetuous, at no time more so than when we’re young and in love with the idea of Cold Cruel World.
Get me out of here.
It is of course, suicidal on her part. Those who survive suicide attempts often report that the instant they leap off the bridge, they regret it. Of course they do. Shitty as life can be, it does have some benefits. Every single day we wake up, we have the chance to do a go-around, because you and I control how we choose to see, perceive and feel about the conditions of our lives. That most don’t necessarily see it that way is part of the Work. The Work is to be able to see differently, not to escape. Conditions rarely change. But we can change our perspectives, what Marcel Proust called seeing with new eyes.
What strikes me about this is how this vivid movie scene so mirrors the human tendency to avoid what hurts, sidestep the Work, and find ways to bypass the inevitable troubles and travails that dog our steps all our days.
Sexy idea indeed.
These day it’s all about hacks, just the latest in a forever lineup of Ways to Avoid Real Work. Medium is chock-full of listicles and advice columns on how to have an easier life. Gets eyeballs, readers and fractions of pennies, but how does this make the Medium writer substantially different from snake oil salesmen? Because, truth be told, their lives certainly aren’t all milk and honey, or else they wouldn’t be writing these kinds of articles. Those who are slogging it out each day are clear about it, and their articles have the ring of authenticity. Those who are skating by on selling empty promises are simply reincarnations of carnies taking money from local rubes who didn’t know any better.
Just like today.
At the risk of offending my Christian friends, there’s no difference between wanting Jesus (or any other religious figure) to bear the burden of our sins (which, kindly, is our burden, not His, given that we did the deeds that we consider sinful) and wanting Prince Charming, he of the long teeth and rat face, to “take us away from all this Death.”
It’s no different from Marshall Applewhite and his Heaven’s Gate followers who committed suicide, sincerely believing they would be given new bodies by extraterrestrials.
In other ways it’s no different from the massive anti-aging business (read: snake oil) that promises to turn back the one thing that will not be turned back: the effects and reality of time. Time, given that we are bare blips on the geographic timetable, doesn’t give us much of a shot to clean things up inside and around us.
Stay with me here. I’m not trying to offend, I’m trying to make a point.
There’s a very good reason folks “get religion” or want Last Rites. Time has run out. All the life that we had to live and see and be differently is suddenly accordion-ed to mere minutes. Seconds. Better profess your love for the Almighty right now, Skeezix, time’s a’ running out.
Many who are right at the cusp of death at any age, profess a profound love, as though it call got awfully clear right then. Right now.
It’s like brushing your teeth the day you see the dentist, after months of candy, bubble gum and ice cream. The rot is already there and the pain, lots of it, is yet to come. Boy is my hand up there.
Learning how to experience that all -encompassing love right here, right now, is part of learning how to be present in the moment. That’s been hijacked lately by the overused term “mindful,” which is now meaningless. Complete awareness in the Now is available, but rarely touched, by humans. Those who have, tend to become our religious icons.
Every morning one of the first things I do is read spiritual texts. There is one that I return to repeatedly because it hits me with all the delicacy of a ball peen hammer in the forehead. The text reads, in part:
…the basic prayer of Christianity: (man) returns to the Father, to his origin. but he does not return by wanting to escape the Earth; he returns by occupying all levels. (author bolded).
This piece goes on to explain that the whole point of our existence is to learn all that we can where we are, right here and right now, not to avoid those lessons. Becoming a Man (which, kindly, in this context is all-inclusive, this is an old text) in Full means that we occupy fully all the ways that we can be Man. We embrace the pain, the suffering, the joys, the challenges, and the outer edges of what is possible to us spiritually and emotionally. We do our best to engage in all of life, let it teach us, challenge us, scar us, build us and shape us into Something Different.
That Something Different has nothing to do with the perfect body, perfect eyebrows, best car, biggest house, largest private island, prettiest wife, best bragging rights, more claps or any other human-centric metric.
Avoiding the Work, the incredibly difficult but deeply-satisfying Work of the heart, the emotions, is what uplifts our limited existence. We cheat ourselves out of the very thing that can free us, which is what most spiritual teachings refer to in one way or another, the return to our Source. I think of it as Universe, others as God, Goddess, Buddha, Mohammad. Makes no difference. It’s essentially the same, that a higher way of being is possible, but it takes hard work, a lifetime of it, to realize it. If at all.
It is still a return, a rising. Learning to live a different life. Loving who we are and all those around us, loving the life we were given as the monumental gift it is, and to stop being distracted by empty promises (buy this! drink that! eat more celery! erase wrinkles! live forever!)
But you don’t get to do that if you shirk the Work.
This is what occupying all levels mean. It means heading terrified into the folds of your inner world, carrying a Maglight, your shaky courage, and facing off with the demons that populate that space. We all have them.
There is always and forever a Balrog in the deep dark of our inner lives. One of my favorite scenes in LOTR is when Gandalf awakens from that epic fight, having won and died one death, to be awakened to the next. He is needed at another level, just as we are. This to me is precisely what all religious texts teach. The old self- that of jealousy, fear, petty angers, petulance, pity parties and self-aggrandizement must eventually die or forever live like Gollum, attached to things, hating and hurting and crying.
Just like now.
Mina in Dracula would never become anything but a creature of the night if she succumbed to the temptations of avoidance. She ultimately saves herself from this fate by both eviscerating and then beheading the very Demon that she professes to love, but which tempted her with utter destruction. It was the price she paid for Becoming. She chose to do the hard work. As Johnathan Harker said just as she was following the mortally-injured Dracula into his castle for the coup de grace, “Our work has finished here. Hers has just begun.”
When we chase the equally-seductive chimeras of perfection of the body, addictions, any escape hatch or hack that falsely (and they are all false) promises an easy way out, we give power to our demons. Those temptations, which are achingly similar for all of us who get tired and depressed and anxious and stressed and want badly to get the hell out of here, are what are characterized as the devil. It’s ever so easy to imagine them as outside forces when in fact they are inside all of us, in various forms.
Their job is to push us to make the same tough choice Mina did. Out of love, not fear, which is the whole point here.
There are no shortcuts to real growth.
There is only through. What that looks like for you is completely different from anyone else on the face of the earth, and always will be. You might have been born autistic, or you have a Down’s child, or you were crippled early in life. You might have a learning disorder or a tendency towards obesity. You might have been born into poor circumstances, or like me, have a long and sordid history of brutal sexual abuse and assaults.
Each of those life circumstances is perfect for each of us. Whether we like them or not, accept them or not, have the courage to embrace them or not are all up to us. The only way we rise is on the backs of the demons we destroy by facing them down, understanding the gifts they offer, and unflinchingly pulling back yet more folds to put more light into the dark. Every one of these battles that we win prepares us for the next, just as Gandalf the Grey morphed into Gandalf the White. The battles don’t go away. We are simply far better prepared to deal with them.
As humans we identify with our bodies as ourselves, which leads us far, far away from the real work we are here to do. As much as I write about health and fitness, and I am dedicated to both, the reason that fitness matters to me is that I owe the world a responsible, productive life. A legacy. I can’t do that if I am whining, grizzling, moaning and complaining about this illness or another. I can’t be useful to others if I am constantly focusing on perfection as the ultimate, while missing the point that perfection has nothing to do with our fleeting physicality. Respecting the body I inhabit is one way that I do the Work.
The real Work has to do with how we hone our hearts, our spirits, our ability to love. To forgive, embrace, and see others as reflections of what is sacred in us. To see the journey as sacred, which I believe it is.
We are so easily side-tracked by the promise of earthly power, superiority (I’m taller, prettier, thinner, richer, better than you are). Again, for those who are Bible readers, Christ himself faced off with that very same Demon who offered him all the earthly delights possible. Money, power, sex, the same things that you and are are constantly tempted by right here, right now. Nothing is changed. The story of Christ in the desert is for me simply a tale of what we all battle all day every day. Distractions, seductions, and fear.
Beam me up, Scottie.
Each demon is replaced by another, usually a tougher one. Call it Life’s Playoff Season. As with Mina, it’s also Sudden Death. Some of our choices, such as extreme fasting (as I read this morning) or extreme sports really can kill.
By the same token, there are vivid stories of people who overcame. It’s not about avoiding temptation entirely (good luck, go live in a bubble). It’s about dealing with the ones we have. Sometimes we fall. I love reading about those who got back up, like Mina.
To me those are the best stories of all. When we fall, as we must, but then we rise, and not everyone wants to. Because it’s hard work. There are plenty of deeply compelling stories on Medium about that very thing.
There is no Get to Heaven free pass, not through being “saved” or anything else. You and I still have to do the work of denying what can hurt us, the compulsions that offer short-term gain or short-term pleasure, the mind-suck of modern-day marketing that sells the idea that being rich, thin and perfect are the only real things in life (and worth dying for, as many have).
This past summer I took an incredibly difficult trip through the Canadian wilderness. On that trip were some of the worst-behaving people I have ever met in my life. They were bullies, low-brow actors, mean-spirited and outright ugly. What they did hurt. Not only that, I got injured regularly and had to fight not only emotional pain but physical pain. But survive it I did. I would no more want to repeat that experience than shove my hand into an operating garbage disposal.
However that trip taught me one hell of a lot about survival, about how psychic pain turns people into outright monsters, and how important it is, in the midst of being attacked, to understand the pain of your attacker. This to me, is the heart and soul of turning the other cheek. I’m not going to lie to you and say that I felt charitable at the time. Not one damned bit. I did later, and that’s the whole point. The Work takes time. It takes deep emotional exploration that is often disconcerting. People are our mirrors, whether we like it or not. And as such they show us our personal demons, and with that, the path by which we can learn to not be defeated by them.
The one thing that I did not do on that trip, which would have been as easy as it was tempting, was return the ugly behavior. I refused to stoop to that level. As hard as that was, as much as I wanted to verbally guillotine these cretins, I didn’t. The price I paid might have been hard, but I didn’t bear the later pain of having done things I would have deeply regretted. I am not privy to whatever distress they were in to make them behave as they did. I was an easy target. It is what we do to each other.
We are all Mina. We all have bloodthirsty Balrogs in the dark. Whether they are opioid addiction, cruel sexual perversions, or compulsive stealing, makes no difference. They are the dank and dirty inhabitants of our inner worlds. Yet they have a sacred purpose. Run from them, and you are never free. Let them out unfettered, we inhabit them. If anything, they gain strength. Face them, you have a chance, because they diminish greatly and disappear in the clear cold light of love, of effort, of dignity.
That is the very story of Halloween, of Modest Moussorsgy’s Night on Bald Mountain, the triumph of good over evil. Of hard choices, and hard-won battles.
May it be a sacred one in all senses of the word.