Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.
– Hebrews 2:14-15
One of the more soothing therapies my wife and I have turned to in an effort to survive this particularly brutal winter is Netflix. In recent weeks it’s not been uncommon for our days to wind down in front of a roaring fireplace, glasses of wine in hand, bingeing on some Netflix in a somewhat futile attempt to escape the harsh realities of the harshest Canadian winter I can remember enduring.
The irony, of course, is that while we turn to our ‘Netflix therapy’ as a temporary escape from reality, often, the content brings us face to face with some of the harsher realities of real life.
This was certainly the case with The Kominsky Method, our latest attempt at Netflix therapy. The recent Golden Globe award-winning mini-series stars Michael Douglas as Sandy Kominsky, an aging actor turned acting coach, with Alan Arkin playing the role of Kominsky’s longtime agent and friend, Norman Newlander.
Aside from the series being some of the best work from these two Oscar-winning longtime mainstays in Hollywood, what captivated me was the way in which The Kominsky Method powerfully articulates a theme at the heart of the human condition, underscored in the biblical narrative and most acutely during the season of Lent—death anxiety.
In episode one, appropriately entitled An Actor Avoids, this theme is immediately thrust our way as immediately learn that Eileen, Norman’s wife of 46 years, is battling terminal cancer. Eileen’s impending death causes both Sandy and Norman’s death anxiety to surface, catapulting their lives and friendship into a tumultuous series of twists and turns as they grapple with the sobering realities of their own death anxiety and the less than healthy coping mechanisms that they repeatedly turn to, in an ultimately futile attempt to suppress and avoid facing and owning their own frail and finite existences.
In one of the more poignant scenes nearing the conclusion of the sitcom, denial gives way to reality:
Norman: You know, I wake up every morning and my first thought is, I wonder what part of me is not working today,
Sandy: Yeah, we are passengers on boats slowly sinking.
The reality of the finitude and frailty of life unlocks the door to the healing balm of empathy and vulnerability as shared in what I consider to be the most powerful scene at the tail end of the series:
Norman: I thought I was angry but the truth is I’m scared.
Sandy: Listen to me. We’re all scared, and you know why? Because it’s a scary [expletive] world. But we get through it because we’re not alone. You’re not alone.
Needless to say, what began as our own subtle attempt to avoid the harsher realities of a Northern Ontario winter, ironically turned to a face-to-face encounter with a theme at the heart of the human condition and the Lenten season.
As I start to write this on Ash Wednesday, the remnants of the imposed ashes remain on my forehead as a visible reminder of my own finitude and frailty, echoing the words imparted to me by the priest during the midday chapel service:
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.”
The season of Lent, much like the overarching theme of The Kominsky Method, serves as a mirror soberingly reflecting the deep-rooted and pervasive neurotic fear of death.
No book has influenced my thinking on the theme of death anxiety more than The Slavery of Death written by Richard Beck (Ironically I worked through this book during the season of Lent a few years ago). Writing as both a psychologist and theologian, Beck unpacks Hebrews 2:14-15 and the theme of death anxiety in a concise and compelling fashion.
While the fear of death can and does manifest itself in a basic anxiety, the anxiety of biological survival as illustrated in The Kominsky Method, the more pervasive, subtle and insidious death anxiety Beck puts his finger on is what he defines as neurotic anxiety. In defining neurotic death anxiety Beck writes:
Unlike basic anxiety, neurotic anxiety isn’t involved in monitoring environmental threats and resources. Rather, it is characterized by worries, fears, and apprehensions associated with our self-concept, much of which is driven by how we compare ourselves to those in our social world. Feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, obsessions, perfectionism, ambitiousness, envy, narcissism, jealousy, rivalry, competitiveness, self-consciousness, guilt, and shame are all examples of neurotic anxiety, and they all relate to how we evaluate ourselves in our own eyes and the eyes of others.1
In our consumeristic society where we, the consumers, are constantly bombarded with messages promising to ease and enhance our lives, it should come as no surprise that death avoidance and the illusion of immortality is so pervasive in our society. As Beck summarizes,
In contemporary [North] American culture our slavery to the fear of death produces superficial consumerism, a fetish for managing appearances, inauthentic relationships, triumphalistic religion, and the eclipse of personal and societal empathy. These are the “works of the devil” in our lives, works produced by our slavery to the fear of death.2
The pervasiveness of the fear of death around and within has become more noticeable in and around me during the season of Lent, which I have begun to practice with more intentionality in recent years. The Lenten journey to the cross, with its emphasis on mortality and self-denial, stands in stark contrast to the narrative of our culture marked by a scarcity mentality which leads to rampant consumerism, violent competition and the keeping up of appearances in the real and social media world.
And so, what started as a seemingly innocent Netflix bingeing session this season of Lent has brought me face-to-face with the dark realities of the slavery of death as I reflect on my own fears and insecurities—fear of failure, fear of the lack of approval of others, fear of not having, nor being enough.
The Lenten season provides an opportunity to experience freedom from the fear of the slavery of death as we humbly and honestly acknowledge and own the neurotic anxiety we are all susceptible to, allowing the perfect love of Christ to heal and make whole.
God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love. – 1 John 4:16-18 (MSG)