Last Friday, my grandmother died. This has been the most difficult period of my life. My mother’s parents basically co-raised me as a child. They were the two people who I looked up to most in my life. My grandfather was the kindest, most gentle man I’ve ever known. He was the kind of person who was so caring that you tended to forget just how benign he actually was. It was simply natural for him. My grandmother was the strongest person I’ve ever known. Her combination of mental strength and external tenderness was truly Christ-like, in the best sense of the term. She was always in complete control of herself, and that “self” was everything you ever wanted to be. This is why it was so hard to let her go last weekend.
My grandfather died last November (around this time), and I was there for his dying breath. In fact, my family and I were there for his last few weeks of consciousness, fully expecting how it might turn out in the end. That was exceptionally difficult, but I wasn’t at all prepared for awaited me just a year later.
I left my apartment, friends and family in southern California in September to engage myself fully in theological education at the University of Aberdeen in northeastern Scotland. Right about the time I left, my grandmother was diagnosed with her fourth (yes, 4!) bout with cancer. For our family, though, this wasn’t terribly fatal news. She’s had it before, and she’d always come out triumphant in the end. If it wasn’t for the fact that the chemo made her hair fall out, you wouldn’t ever even have know that something was wrong. That’s just how strong she was. My family spent last Friday in the hospital, as my grandmother’s chemotherapy created some heart complications that were fairly alarming. As I sat in class halfway around the world, completely oblivious of the situation at hand, her condition worsened rapidly. According to my parents, she began to lose control of her mental faculties (something very, very uncharacteristic of her), and started ranting and raving at the doctor’s, begging them to stop the treatment, to just “let her go”.
I can’t help but dwell on this situation. The person I looked up to most in life was completely vulnerable in her last moments. It was anything but the “precious death” that is due to true saints. I can’t help but think that this traumatic, and sudden, occurrence is aggravated (for me) by the fact that I wasn’t there to witness it. If I had, it would have taken the course of a truly “traumatic event”. All I have now is speculation, and it is the most heart-wrenching thing I’ve ever forced upon myself.
I sit here writing this back in Aberdeen, far away from my hometown in the suburbs outside of Los Angeles. I’ve spent the last week back in L.A. with my family, attending my grandmother’s funeral, and spending time (hopefully) consoling my family members while trying to reconcile my own grief in the process. What has concerned me most throughout the last week is my own reaction to my grandmother’s death. When my grandfather died, I was distraught. I couldn’t function. During this week, however, I’ve been quite productive. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a more theologically productive week (quantitatively, at least). I’ve gotten so much done in my free time; it’s really quite frightening (perhaps this post is representative). What does this say about the nature of theology?
As I ponder this question, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that, for me at least, theology is essentially neurotic. As a form of death denial (or some other psychological repression), I have a fondness for theology because it is the perfect defense mechanism for my sublimated fears. All of the resentment that has built up within me over the last week has been channeled quite effectively into fruitful theological output. At first, this scared me (and it still does). I believe that I’ve found something out about myself that I’ve always secretly feared: Theology isn’t fundamentally a noble exercise.
Nevertheless, I think I may have found a way beyond this impasse. The very fact that I’m back in Aberdeen to finish my degree is testament to the fact that I have an objective. Don’t get me wrong, the return of the repressed is a bitch (excuse my language, but its necessary), but I think theology has a way out. I guess I have come to accept the fact that all of life is made up of symptoms, but if taken in the Lacanian sense, then these symptoms are all we have (so enjoy!). At the very least, theology is a symptom that, while being a full-fledged sublimation, traces back onto the repressed and confronts it head-on. A good theology will accept its human limitations and accept the judgment of God upon its presumptions. What I’m trying to express through all of this is that I don’t think that I have anywhere else to go. So what if I’m just another middle-class WASP engaging in the useless task of theology? There’s nowhere else to turn. I hate death, and I hate pain. Faith is the only mode of expression I know of that truly materializes these deep-seated beliefs, even if it doesn’t solve them in and of itself. Christianity is the only thing I know how to do; I feel compelled to continue. In true McCabean fashion, “If Christianity isn’t the revolution, then nothing is.”