"'I don't fear death,' and other wisdom from Betty White"
Sometimes I say that I’m not afraid of death. That’s mostly true. Between having a faith that gives witness to death not having the last word and working in my uncle’s funeral home when I was younger—seeing up close the comical reality of death, bodies clearly vacant of life’s energy—I embrace death as just a part of life that awaits us all. But other times, when I’m digging a little deeper than experiential self-assuredness, I worry about it a little.
When Betty White died recently, less than three weeks shy of her 100th birthday, I picked up the last of her several memoirs. In the final chapter of If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t), written when she was 89, White reflects on how aging does not depress her. “I don’t fear death,” she writes, commenting on how some people worry about it so much that “it ruins some of the good time they have left.” Remembering one of her beloved TV co-stars, Estelle Getty, White recalls that Getty was so afraid of dying that the writers of The Golden Girls could not put a “dead joke” in the script. “This was early on, long before she ever got ill.”
In those digging deeper moments, I also find that my smidge of worry about dying is not so much about death as it is about not knowing fully, as the apostle Paul writes, what the afterlife is like: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12b). My assurance comes in breathing deeply—faithfully—of the sacred truth that abundant, everlasting life is not meant for me to fully know; rather, that my life is made to be known fully by a Love that will not let me go in this life or the next. I need only be open to that truth without existential worries that keep me from being fully alive today.
In his book, If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus, Philip Gulley writes, “If the church were Christian, we would do what Jesus did—equip one another to live better in this world and stop fretting about the next one…When his disciples asked him how to pray, he told them to pray that God’s kingdom would come to earth. Now was the day of salvation. And what was that salvation? It was the day when all of humanity would be so imbued with God’s presence that we would hunger and thirst for righteousness. Salvation would be when heaven was in us, not when we were in heaven. It would happen when we stopped worrying about saving our own skin and cared more about saving and restoring the land and sea and sky and all who dwell therein.” The extent to which I am marred by worry that keeps me from being fully alive today is to the detriment of God’s communal salvation of this whole world They so love.
When Estelle Getty died in 1992, Betty White remembered what her mother would say about death: “Today we know so much and can discover so much more, but what no one knows for sure is exactly what happens when we pass on.” When someone died, White’s mother would grieve, but she would also say about the deceased, “Now they know the secret.” For White, that helped ease the pain at the loss of Getty and so many others who passed on, reminding herself, “And now she knows the secret.” Now we know a lot and can come to know so much more; and then we will know the whole of it, even as the limitless love of God that transcends even the empty joke called death knows the whole of us always.
I have no doubt that there is life everlasting on the other side of eternity, but I don’t believe that Jesus came to give us life to the fullest—abundant life—so that we would spend these precious days worrying and waiting aimlessly for it. As Jesus started his earthly ministry by saying to everyone in the synagogue about God’s liberating word spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you have heard it” (Luke 4:21), so, too, God’s liberating goodness is fulfilled in you and me today and every day that we set aside worry and live abundantly: sharing good things, doling out compassion, forgiving ceaselessly, pursuing justice tirelessly, and heaping on the love mirrored after a Love that knows us so well that we have nothing to fear about tomorrow.