Communicating to Death (or some better title)

“Urkel is dead and I can’t breathe.” Those were the words Oprah spoke to the interviewer when they asked her about one of the most recent casualties of a senseless shooting. I couldn’t breathe either. How could Urkel be gone? He held the hopes of so many of us. He had achieved the dream and now the dream was once again deferred if not thrown in a complete reversal. They killed Urkel. And if Urkel, the man who had changed everything, was taken out as a threat, what chance did I have? What chance did any of us have?

According to the news, Urkel had been caught in the crossfire between police officers and criminals. But no one believed it. We all thought that it was a set up. Why would Urkel have been in that area of town and why weren’t the security details who were there to protect him doing their jobs? No one could answer these questions and it seemed like everyone was willing to move forward just a little too easily. But not us. Not black people in America. For too many of us, his death was the last defeat in a many century’s long string of defeats. And many of us felt like we didn’t have any fight left in us. Anytime Oprah couldn’t muster hope, what could you expect from the less inspired among us.

And that’s when I woke up. It was all a dream. “Thank God,” I thought. Even though Urkel, or the actor Jaleel White who played Urkel was not of such notoriety in real life as he was in my dream, it still would have been sad to think that he was killed. So it was a relief that I was dreaming. But just in case, I grabbed my phone to look up whether or not something happened to Jaleel White that perhaps my subconscious mind had picked up on. So I went to Yahoo! News and there it was, “Actor Jaleel White, Famous for Portraying Steve Urkel, Killed In Shootout With Police”.

“Damn!” I thought. “This can’t be real.” But there it was, the exact same situation as occurred with Urkel in my dream. But this time it happened to Jaleel White. And while it didn’t quite get the same attention as the events in my dream, there was still quite a bit of disappointment and sadness. His death was still a sign to many of us that no matter how much work we put in to exceed this country’s expectations of us, the toxic consciousness that deemed us less than worthy would eventually catch up to us and take us out. And that’s when I decided to just give up. I didn’t dare put myself out there like that. I couldn’t shine my light only to have it choked out by a world that doesn’t want me anyway. And that’s when I woke up again. I was still dreaming.

The second time I woke up I was happy to discover that Jaleel White was still very much alive. Unfortunately, so was the feeling of dismay that the dream had awakened in me. As I lay in the bed trying to make sense out of the dream, I could sense that some part of me wanted to hold on to this negative feeling. I wanted to give in to the defeat. The question was why?

Give me back my story!

Can you grieve what has never been? If so, then I can’t imagine how many people are grieving over the “thems” that never were. I think about that all of the time when I see people walking down the street appearing to be robbed of their stories of who they could’ve been by the programming handed to them by a “box-binding” culture that tries to put everyone in their place and keep them there. I think about it when I look in the mirror. Any time I imagine myself living up to my highest potential, there is a sense that comes over me—that if I were to put it into words—would say, “Don’t you dare live into your calling. If you do, they will get you.”

Who is the “they” that will get me? I really don’’t know. I used to think it was “white people” because when I looked at history, I saw a whole lot of, who we’ve come to know as, white people taking out black people and people of color who dared to live into their highest calling or suggest that others could or should. Of course, there are people who make it through. But it seemed to me that only a limited number of us were allowed through the gates. And those of us who did seemed to have to pass some kind of loyalty test to prove that they would not overly disrupt the status quo—a test that I am quite sure I’d fail if I ever opened my mouth to say everything that is in my heart.

I think that’s ultimately what my dream was about. I think my subconscious mind chose Urkel as the pinnacle of black achievement because his character was the most non-threatening black person that my mind could come up with. And yet still, I created a dream when he was killed in a situation with police. When I reflect on this, I have to acknowledge that it seems that I might be a little programmed. Years of messaging and—truth be told—a substantial amount of witnessing a pattern has gotten to me.

In my wakened life, I tell myself that I do my best to give my gifts to the world as freely as I have received them from God. My whole thing is that I want to shine my light and encourage others to do likewise. But my dreams tell another story. And with this one, it went so deep that I can’t pretend to myself that I haven’t finally been reinfected by fear of the last enemy—death.

Death Becomes Us

Now it might sound strange to say that I have been reinfected with the fear of death. But that is my reality. For a significant portion of my life, I had not been afraid of death. Because I had accepted it as such an inevitability it was not such a threat to me as it seems to be for most people. It was as if the same defeat that my dream gave imagery to was in a large capacity serving me. As I have mentioned to many and have heard articulated by many other young black men, I expected that I would be dead by 18 and experienced anything beyond that as bonus time. Now for some people, that would sound depressing, but I experienced it as liberating. Once I wasn’t concerned about keeping my life, it seemed like I was free to live it as I saw fit for whatever time I had.

People underestimate just how much the fear of death influences our decisions and binds us to things that we might otherwise walk away from. The Bible talks about it explicitly and attributes the fear of death as the very reason that most of us are slaves to “sin” i.e. error. It also refers to death itself as the last enemy to be destroyed by Christ in 1 Corinthians 15.

The resurrected Jesus makes a lot more sense when fear of death is out of the equation. If you think about his sayings such as, “Those who hate their lives will gain it,” from the angle that I was looking at it, it seems pretty clear to me that fear of death has no place in the mindset oriented in eternity. Realizing this is like giving you the tools to clean that mirror through which Paul said that we witness reality darkly (dimly in some translations) in 1 Corinthians 13:12. In a lot of ways it is a great feeling that is difficult to put into words. The only apparent downside to it is that, in a world that is almost entirely built on the presumption that people can be controlled or manipulated by their fear of death, not having that fear can render one quite unrelatable to many people.

When you think about it enough, it is not too difficult to see that the fear of death is the thread that ties most human activities together. So if you don’t know how to feel that fear or choose to not let it control you, most people will not be able to categorize you or the decisions you make i.e. put you in your box. That means that you’ll be operating outside of cultural norms—something I’ve learned most people can’t handle. It pretty much drives them crazy. So much so that even your best friends, family, ministers, etc., who pretty much believe that they have your best interest at heart, will sometimes turn on you thinking that they are serving you. That’s pretty much the move Peter made when Jesus said he was heading to the cross. Peter, thinking he knew better (but was really operating from the fear of death) said to Jesus, “Far be it from you Lord. This shall not happen to you.” Mind you that according to scriptural order, this comes right after Peter is the first disciple to admit that he believed Jesus was the Christ—the anointed of God (Matthew 13).

By the world’s standards, Peter was just trying to be a good friend. But Jesus didn’t see it that way. Why? Because Jesus was not controlled by the fear of death. So when Peter said his piece, Jesus came back with, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” Can you imagine what kind of an ass you would feel like if the person you most admired in the world called you “Satan” for trying to do what you thought was the right ting to do? And think about the context. Peter left everything for Jesus—what most of us would call “our whole life”. Add to that thought what Jesus said about Satan and you have the one, who Peter recognized as the long awaited Christ, pretty much giving him the atom bomb of put downs. They couldn’t have been in more different places mentally at that moment. And that’s pretty much what I remember it feeling like when I was not being influenced by this most common fear—as if I was as far from relating to most people I communicated with as pole is to pole.

When you make peace with death, you have no enemies.

By most accounts, the worst thing anyone can do to a person is kill them or someone they love. When people don’t fear these possibilities, it is really difficult to threaten them with anything less. Without going too far into it, I was in a relatively unique position to know what both of these felt like. I imagine that it is similar to what people who grow up in war zones feel like. You get so used to feeling unsafe that the fear of death just becomes background noise—meaningless static meant only to be drowned out. And so once I got past the work of drowning it out, I just went about the work of simply living until the inevitable came. Of course, death is inevitable for all of us. But, as you likely know, most of us do everything we can to avoid facing it. We deny it as a part of our reality, and as a consequence, reality itself denies us the wisdom that acceptance of our own and everyone else’s date with mortality offers us.

For years I benefited from this wisdom without even exactly knowing that this was what was influencing me and the decisions I made. All I knew was that the fear of it had no power over me and so I did or didn’t do whatever I chose to do or not do. The positive consequence of this was that I didn’t need anyone’s approval to be me. The negative side—if you can call it that—was that many people experienced me as not caring about them or their feelings. This was so far from the case. I can honestly say that I do everything I can to keep my heart open to loving everyone. If there is anything that I take seriously, it is the “The Two Great Commandments”—love God and neighbor with everything that’s in you. It is the filter through which I live my life and has been consistently since I accepted God’s love for all of us. But when people entangle what they think of as love with control and manipulation, they have a difficult time believing that someone who doesn’t want to control them or be controlled by them loves them.

Even in our most intimate relationships, fear of death is a factor that clouds damn near every experience we have of each other. And consequently, our attachment to those relationships and what we think we get out of them, turns us away from the awareness Christ has. When you’re convinced of this, it can be hard on relationships with people who don’t have that worldview. Jesus tried to tell us that according to the 14th Chapter of Luke verse 26 where it says, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, they cannot be My disciple.” Do you ever hear that preached? Of course not. Because, it doesn’t make sense to anyone who fears death of themselves and their loved ones.

There have been many times in my life when I felt a pull in one direction and those who cared for me and were trying to protect me did everything they could to change my mind. When it became obvious that I wasn’t going to listen, they often pulled a Peter on me and then when I asked them to back off, they typically went into an aggressive mode accusing me of not caring or not respecting them. It was neither of these but more the fact that the fear of death that was connected to their opinion was not a contributing factor for me. A good example was when I decided not to reenlist in the military.

When I decided to leave the Air Force, almost everyone who cared about me warned me not to make the decision because in their opinion I was giving up too much. Then when I didn’t leverage my military background and security clearance into a job with the government, many people who previously thought of me as a responsible person decided that I was not far above a loser because I didn’t make the decision they thought was the safest. That’s what the fear of death does. For the person who is influenced by it, it turns friends into enemies. But for the person who ignores death’s relationship ending threats, they forgive people’s reactions as they would a child’s protestations.

Making the Unreal Real

For a while, engaging with people who were operating from the fear of death paradigm reminded me of how I felt as a child when I never believed in Santa Claus but I was told not to tell other kids that he didn’t exist. They would be having very real conversation and basing their Christmas future on what they thought they might get from Santa. Not believing in him, I wanted to tell anyone who brought him up to me that they’d been lied to. But, I didn’t want to crush their excitement so I’d just say something like, I don’t think about what I want much. The truth was that my parents began their divorce process around my second Christmas. So at some point thereafter when I asked my mom about Santa Claus, she was in no place to “give her credit to a fat white man.” She apologized for saying it later. But it was too late. I knew he wasn’t real. And then when my brother got old enough to understand the season, she had me promise not to tell him or any other children.

Like coming out of the Matrix, there was no going back to believing in Santa and yet, at the same time, there was very little chance of being truthful to people who believed in him without upsetting them and, from their perspective, being the one who was causing the trouble in our relationship. It was the same when I tried to tell people that the fear of death was an illusion producing condition. The following are some of the common human expressions that I considered to be fruits of the fear of death that were not worth partaking of:

  • Jealousy
  • Shame
  • Blame
  • Bargaining
  • Lying
  • Stealing
  • Manipulating
  • Guilt
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear of Loss
  • Ass-kissing
  • Arguing

If you’ve ever been in a relationship with another human being for any significant amount of time, you know that most of these come up. And you also know that not engaging in these can be taken as not being concerned about sustaining the relationship. I once had a women who I’d been dating for some time tell me that she was leaving me for another guy and my response was simply, “OK”. When I said that she was super pissed. She called me several colorful names and then proceeded to tell me that I forced her hand because I never cared about her. According to her understanding, had I cared, I would have shown some jealousy when men showed interest in her or checked her out. I logically reminded her that our relationship started because I showed interest and checked her out. So it made perfect sense to me that other men would too. She didn’t like that response. Nor did she like the explanation that her feelings were an illusion produced by an unreasonable fear of death and that in fact she was the one who didn’t care about the reality of who I was. Because, from my vantage point, if she cared about who I really was, she would be able to accept that, while I did not hold the same worldview as she did, I could be in a relationship with her. However, because my worldview was not consistent with her own, she felt forced to find another boyfriend and then break up with me.

Now chances are that even if you don’t agree with her methods, you can sympathize with her more than you can with me. Somehow, my “OK” to her breakup announcement, makes me look like more of an asshole than her choice would make her appear. You probably think that I didn’t care about her. How could I with that response, right? But the truth is that I love her like I love myself. And notice I didn’t say loved as in past tense. Even though we are not together, I love her just as much now as I did then even though I am married with two children to someone who I also love as myself. Does that seem wrong to you? If so, why?

Fear of death says that there is not enough love to go around just as it says about everything else. And it is all untrue. But try convincing someone of this and see how it goes. When we broke up and when other relationships I was in ended, I was consistently told that, despite my loyalty, the women could not feel safe in the relationship because they didn’t feel special. They felt as if I loved everyone I knew as much as I loved them. And when they confronted me on it, I would admit that they were correct.

After hearing this a number of times, I eventually stopped saying things like this directly. And in some instances, I chose to participate in some of the activities I bulleted above. I just started to look at it in a way similar to how an adult might play pretend games with a child. I guess I thought it was an expression of compassion. But now I am starting to think that perhaps I was subconsciously fooling myself.

What You Say is What You Get. What You Can’t Say is What You Lose.

I was talking to a friend recently about what it feels like to lose a language skill. It is a strange feeling to know that you used to know how to say something and yet presently you cannot remember the words that you feel as being on the tip of your tongue. It is a disconcerting thing to have once been able to navigate what was once a foreign land alone only to return and recognize the sounds, sights, and characters and yet be lost and in need of a translator. Stranger still is to forget the language of your father and be hesitant to return to the place of his birth and your family because if your own cousins speak to you it might take a month before you’d be able to respond. It is a torturous thing to make less sense to your own self than you once did because you lost the language of your self-talk—the primary too you used to help you orient yourself in this world that otherwise feels like it could never have possibly been your home. It is a bothersome thing to learn someone else’s language so that you can understand them but have them refuse to learn your language so that they might better understand you. I have known all of these things.

In this lifetime, I have spoken Cape Verdean Criolo (Portuguese foundation), Spanish, Mandarin, and English with a level of proficiency where if I were dropped in countries that spoke those languages, I could survive with no problem. Creole was my father’s language and English is my mother’s, I picked up Spanish through three years in high school, exposure from my dad, four months in Panama, and three years in Arizona. I learned Mandarin from a 63 week training course at The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, another several months in a specialty school in TX and two and half years on the job. Not to mention trips to China and Taiwan, working with language partners and dating a Chinese woman. But, with the obvious exception of English, over the past 13 years, I have let all of those languages slip for a variety of reasons to include my father passing, no longer working in an office filled with Mandarin speakers, and no real occasion to practice my Spanish.

Where is Your Soul’s Home?

Through the diminishing of my language skills, I have come to realize that not being able to express oneself in a way that can be communicated clearly to at least one other person can feel like a type of homelessness of the soul. It makes sense to me even more clearly why Jesus said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”

After three plus years of explaining things and demonstrating his lessons to his disciples, even up to the last day, they couldn’t get where he was coming from. Even when he reportedly said thing like, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” (John 6:63), it seems that the thoughts in his head could not find a place in the head of those he was teaching and ministering to. It’s probably still that way. And I think that it is because most of us listen with ears tuned for the threats of death, that we then superimpose on everything we hear—even words of life.

So What Now?

I don’t know.

From Death to Life

Linguists can tell you that not everything is translatable from one language to another. And unfortunately, because of “linguocentrism” (the belief that one’s own language is superior to others), most people psychologically experience so called foreign languages as failed attempts to speak their own. These two factors combined, lend to most of us subconsciously experiencing communication challenges as death threats. They are not. At least, they don’t have to be.

It wasn’t until recently that I started to makes sense of this. And when I did, it scared the crap out of me. Without the fear of death haunting me, I was not threatened by communication challenges. Even when people would argue with me or even physically assault me when I was younger, the awareness of death’s inevitability, caused me to prioritize my responses in such a way that I focused more on that which would keep me calm and I would dismiss the rest. It simply wasn’t worth using whatever life I had fighting with people over temporary circumstances. And I could sustain this largely because I had taught myself, using a combination of linguistic tools, to speak life to myself.

However, once a large part of my life included trying to figure out how to explain myself to others in way that they could understand, I began to lose the practice of life affirming self-talk. Once I prioritized talking to others in their language, I actually started to forget my own. And with that, I began to talk to myself in other people’s inner languages.

There’s a reason why we are advised not tot take other people’s prescriptions. What is medicine to one person can actually be poison to another. What brings life to one can at times bring death to another. And that is what was happening to me. I almost talked myself to death without even knowing it. But I think that is what my dreams were trying to tell me. (I know. It took a long time to get back to this.)

Franz Fanon taught that the language used to oppress a people cannot be used to articulate their freedom. As a linguist, I can affirm that perspective. For most of my early life, the way language was used in this country, had a legacy of articulating justification of oppression, unworthiness, and other negative attributes upon me. For the most part, it was used to create a narrative that people who look like me are a threat. And what do we do to threats? We eliminate them.

For years I thought I had beat the programming when in fact I had just accepted it completely and then worked with it the best I could. I will not say that this didn’t serve me in some way. I’m still alive. So there’s that. Additionally, seeing beyond the threat of death, I have been able to enter into spaces that I would have been too afraid to enter were I trying to protect myself.

But over the past few years, as I have started to finally imagine a future, I have come to realize that talking myself into life has its limits. This became more obvious as a parent. The desire to be around for my children and the impulse to protect them from what I thought I had overcome, has shown me that it is time for a new approach.

In an age where videos of unarmed black men being killed are nearly ubiquitous, shootings at schools and houses of worship are commonplace, the reemergence of Confederate Flags is normal, and excessive polarization is…well excessive, I have come to the point where my words, whether in Criolo, Spanish, Mandarin, English or some combination thereof are not enough.

Even after using a gazillion words to try and make a point on this post, I am pretty certain that I am not that far from failing to do so. And yet, it was worth the effort because if nothing else, I have admitted to myself that I am further from where I thought I was, in terms of being past the fear of death, than I had thought. And so now, I can move forward from here, realizing both the importance of having a practice of self-talk that speaks to my soul and understanding that the work of articulating life requires creating a language designed specifically for that purpose.

Final Words

In spite of the many words that I have used to get here, I feel the need to lift up that it is the words that emerge from stillness and silence that do the most to serve us all. Additionally, though I have used “Christian language” to substantiate some of my statements, I do so knowing full well the the Spirit of Life is bigger than and beyond a particular religion’s own linguistic limitations. And even coming from a perspective that clearly includes what it feels like to look at the world through the lens of a black American heterosexual male, I acknowledge that this lens is just as subject to biases as any other lens. So, with the full intent of fostering the most expansive approach to communicating life that I can, I will do everything I can to listen in such a way that honors everyone I encounter as being on life’s journey. And to the degree that, my words don’t communicate Oneness of Life, I will be honest about my limitations and invite those with whom I am in communication to create a new language with me that draws us closer to one another—one that honors every equally.

Exercises for expansion

If you are interested in pushing yourself beyond your limitations, I invite you to consider:

  • Participating in a Living Room Conversation
  • Watching films and interviews with people you disagree with
  • Read a book or article that fosters an opinion from someone who challenges you and highlight where you could agree with them
  • Ask yourself the question, “What do I really know about __________?” (Fill in the blank with anything that you can admit you have a strong one-sided and unsubstantiated opinion on.)
  • Ask yourself the question, “Why am I so afraid of __________?”
  • Admit to one person your limitations and how you feel about them.

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