Life on death row

December 1, 2010 | 38 comments

This post was originally published on February 2, 2009.

A couple weeks ago I was half paying attention to a documentary about a maximum security prison while folding laundry. They were interviewing a 25-year-old “lifer, ” and he mentioned that he used to be on death row but his sentence was commuted to life without parole. The producer asked him to describe what it was like to be released from death row.

He gazed into the distance and responded, “You can’t imagine. When you’re on death row, it’s like you’re already dead. You try to play cards, but you hear that clock ticking in your head, knowing that the date of your extinction has already been set, and now it’s just a matter of days and minutes. You could read a book, watch some TV, but why? You’re gonna die soon and can’t take none of that stuff with you, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.” He got choked up as he added, “I got my whole life back when I got off of death row.”

As I folded a t-shirt I nodded knowingly, subconsciously reacting to his description in a spirit of camaraderie. I instinctively viewed him as someone with whom I had a shared, rare experience, knowing that the producer and the viewers of the show could never imagine what it was like because they hadn’t been there like we had.

I stopped cold with a shirt half folded in my hand when I became aware of my reaction. Where did that come from? How on earth could I, a middle-class girl who’s never even been to the county jail, have the faintest idea what a former death row penitentiary inmate was talking about?

And then I realized: because when I was an atheist, I lived on death row.

I first realized the gravity of my sentence when I was around 11 years old. One night the thought of death randomly popped to mind, and for the first time I fully internalized the reality that I would one day die. Though of course I already knew that nobody lives forever, this was the first time that that veil that blocks unpleasant truths from our conciousness was pierced and I understood down to my bones that it was only a matter of time before a coffin lid closed on top of my body. The weight of that reality was too much for my intellect to bear; it’s like I thought about it more in my racing heart than in my head. My whole being was aware that everything I thought of as “me” — my body, my feelings, my loves, my thoughts, all my hopes and dreams — were nothing more than the products of random chemical reactions that would one day cease, and “I” would disappear.

The human psyche is surprisingly good at blocking out these sorts of unbearably heavy realizations, so I managed to get out of the tailspin of despair within a couple of days and not put any more serious thought into death for a few years. But then high school and college rolled around, I became more curious about life and the world, and the reality of death began to swirl around the periphery of my thoughts once again. Most of the time I could keep my mind occupied with school and friends and parties, but every now and then that veil would fall down again and the reality of death would go seeping down into my bones, leaving me too depressed to cry.

For some reason most of my other atheist friends didn’t seem to struggle with this sort of thing, but I didn’t understand why not. As atheist Bertrand Russell once pointed out, all the efforts of our lives were to be multiplied by zero in a matter of years. With no eternal “self” or even “memory” beyond the grave, it would be as if we never existed. Sure, we would live on in people’s memories, but all of humanity would one day be gone. And measuring by the universe’s timescale, all life on earth — let alone one human’s life — would not even amount to a blip on the radar screen.

The date of our extinction was coming up soon, getting closer by the second. The only difference between a death row inmate and anyone else, in my eyes, was that the prisoner knew the date. I had those same questions that inmate expressed: Why play cards? Why watch TV? Why read a book? Sure, you might have momentary pleasure or gain some knowledge, but it was all fleeting, and it would all disappear — along with you — upon your impending extermination. And the clock was ticking. We were all dead men walking.

It felt wrong — deeply, uncomfortably wrong — to think about all of this. And upon my conversion to Christianity I realized why:

That crushing despair I experienced when I would absorb the implications of my worldview was the feeling of a precious, eternal soul railing against the injustice of being denied. Somewhere in that part of my mind where primal truths too important for words reside was the knowledge that “I” was something more than just randomly evolved chemical reactions, that “I” was both body and eternal soul, that “I” had the opportunity to spend eternity in a place of perfect peace, and that to believe otherwise was the biggest mistake a person could ever make.

When I first came to believe the truth of Christian doctrine, I didn’t think much about the eternal implications. I’d gotten good at distracting myself from thoughts of death and I didn’t want to bias my research into Christianity with a desire to believe in eternal life. So it was only slowly, over time, that I became aware that I was freer than I used to be, that life seemed more complete in a certain way than it had been before. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

Then one day I was driving through an intersection where the stoplights had just lost power, and I barely missed getting into a serious, possibly deadly, accident. It was then that I realized what that new “something” was: fear of death no longer haunted me. I no longer saw the end of my life on earth as an abyss of nothingness; rather, I understood it as an opportunity to finally go home. The sleepless nights, the frantic search for distractions, the restlessness that comes with seeking a constant state of denial were all gone. Though it had happened gradually, when I compared my new state of mind with my old one I felt lighter than air; the foundation of my subconscious was now paved with joy instead of despair.

In that moment I realized that I’d spent my whole life falsely condemned to death row. And now I was finally free.

photo by decade_null

38 Comments

  1. priest's wife

    WOW JEN! It IS amazing that Jesus releases all of us from death!!! You stated that fact so beautifully

  2. Liesl

    Wow. This is so true but yet I feel like we don’t think about it too much. Really good post for the start of Advent too – what with all the end times readings. I used to struggle with the concept of “forever” when I was younger when thinking about death, and I still sometimes do, but it’s better now that I have more of an understanding of spending forever in Heaven… hopefully!

  3. Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

    Amazing! Thanks for sharing!

  4. ~Ana Paula~A Católica

    Hi, Jennifer!
    A Big HELLO from BRASIL!!

    What a considerable difference in your Life becoming a person with so much Faith, isn’t it?

    Sometimes I am perfectly able to say without regrets: “I have no fear about death, cause here is just a small journey. In fact, we all belong to Eternity”.

    I can assure that the faith in the Ressurection and in Heaven – despite there is no possibility of me going to there directly, cause I presume that I will pass through the Purgatory before! -, well, my Belief makes me walk around the world and face its difficulties full of confidence.

    It is really wonderful being a Christian and even more Catholic! Don’t you think so?

    Stay in the Peace of God!!
    You and All Your Readers!!

    P.S. I simply love the way you write. Perfect.

  5. Sue

    Once again, I’ve linked to you on facebook. You write good stuff!

  6. Michelle

    I think a large part of atheism is coming to accept, and even embrace, the fact that we live here, on this tiny planet in a vast solar system in a vast galaxy in a vast universe, for a short while, and then we are gone. I don’t mean to be condescending at all, because I’m sure you’ve spent years mulling these same ideas over, but the very thing that disturbed you – this idea that each of us will one day be truly gone – is what motivates me. Instead of mourning the fact that I won’t live forever, physically or spiritually, I feel constantly reminded that I shouldn’t obsess over little, inconsequential details and instead should strive to impact the world in the best way I can in the little time I have. Do you know what I mean?

    I’m glad you found peace in your own way – if that’s through the Catholic church, so be it. But I regret that your view of atheism is so negative, because to me it is the most inspiring, humbling worldview imaginable.

    • Geomama

      I appreciate your willingness to share that view here. It’s also refreshing to find a blog where people can post opposing views and not get ripped to shreds.

    • Denise

      I second Geomama’s thoughts.

      “I feel constantly reminded that I shouldn’t obsess over little, inconsequential details and instead should strive to impact the world in the best way I can in the little time I have.”

      That is wonderful! It is exactly how my Catholic faith shapes me, including feeling inspired and humbled all at once. (Humility seems to be such an underrated virtue these days….)

      I wish all could come to a place of true peace; though we might attain it via different ways, it’s hard to come to a point of mutual understanding and common ground without that personal sense of being utterly grounded.

      Best wishes!

    • Michelle

      I agree! It’s nice to know that (almost) anonymous dissent doesn’t always have to lead to being attacked by other commenters. 🙂

      Denise, that sense of mutual understanding is so hard to come by. For whatever reason, it seems that so few people are able to grasp the concept that their own “true peace” isn’t the only true peace out there. Best wishes to you as well!

  7. Andie

    This is so honest and real. It should be read by everyone, atheists and Christians alike. What a wonderful reflection. I’m so glad that you found new life….life eternal
    Andie

  8. descrito

    This speaks to my exact situation so perfectly it scares me. Thank you so much for posting this. I’m glad I’m not the only one that has had that kind of despair about death.

    I’ve recently returned to the catholic church and it’s helping me cope. But still, there is always that little voice in my head saying “but how do you know any of it is true?” Has this ever happened to you? How did you cope?

    • Sue

      descrito, I think we’ve each had that thought. This is what I’ve come to realize over the years: the more I learn about what the Catholic Church teaches, the more I know that God exists. Man could not have made it up. Each aspect of it dovetails perfectly with every other aspect and there are no internal contradictions, so much so that the beauty and truth of Catholicism just shines through. I love the Church because what she teaches is true.

      • Amanda Rose/A Little One

        descrito, Just want you to know you are not alone. I converted to the Catholic faith when I was married, but had doubts for many years, especially about whether Jesus was really the son of God. Early on, I decided that people smarter than me had studied and believed for the last 2000 years, so maybe they weren’t wrong. I also finally decided that I would believe “all this” even if it was all wrong. I chose to believe and hung onto the words of the Creed, prayed it daily during those times, even if I couldn’t pray it all but just part of it. Through many years of prayer I have come to have a relationship with God, and now I know in my heart and soul that there is Truth and I am in love with Him. Hope that helps! I remember how painful those struggles can be, hang in there! You are not alone.

        • descrito

          Thank you so much for your reply, it really helps!

      • descrito

        Thanks for the reply. Gives me something to think about!

    • Denise

      My personal sense of it (at least in my life lately) is the recognition that faith, like true charitable love, is a choice. It is “faith” because by definition you do not have absolute proof. As a scientifically-minded person I don’t know that I’ve ever seen convincing proof that there is a God. (Personal encounters with the Divine don’t really count, because you can’t replicate them for others. Neither do “proofs” that rely on a specific paradigm to hold water.)

      But: to not believe in God, or to not believe in a personally-involved God, is also a choice – because there are no “proofs” against God’s existence either. In my experience, atheists/agnostics/deists feel that accepting the absence of God makes lots of explanations fall into place. Also in my experience (as a one-time agnostic/deist, anyway), believing in a personally-involved God makes even more explanations fall into place, into an astonishing, beautiful, cohesive whole. Looking around, belief in God and truly TRULY following the Church’s teachings seems to result in some of the most admirable people in existence.

      God wants you to choose to believe in Him. It’s the ultimate of free will, both gift and burden. Keep in mind that many saints, including Mother Teresa, experienced a “dark night of the soul”, where the incredible works she did were off of faith – pure, unadulterated faith – alone.

      Many blessings and prayer to you as you find peace in this!

      • descrito

        Thank you very much. That was very insightful

  9. Kara

    I see what you’re saying here although I have to confess I struggle with the idea of death. I became much more aware of my mortality after I began working in a hospital. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – it makes me more intentional on how I want to spend my time when I’m here. But, if I was to die soon the thought brings me sadness knowing the separation that would occur between my family and I, and thinking of my kids growing up without a mom and my husband’s grief. For me, it’s not a distrust in the idea of eternal life or even too much of a love of this life, but I think a genuine grasping of the reality of death.

    • Aimee

      I had a similar experience last year, when I had to have surgery to remove some (thankfully benign, but didn’t know for sure until after) tumors. The very thought of separation from my children, of missing out on their futures, and on all the boring stuff ahead on the calendar too, filled me with grief, and made my death much more real. I think this reminds us, though, of why death is the last enemy to be defeated–because it really is horrible.

  10. Deborah

    Half the time I read your blog, it’s like you are writing about me and my life. We seem to have similar reasons for our conversions. This entry describes perfectly my experience before I became Catholic at 25. From the time I was a young girl I would go into deep existential dread and depression at the possibility of my life ceasing to exist. You are right that that reaction is our soul telling us we are wrong to think that. An atheist reading this may want to check out the documentary The Case for a Creator, which shows how science is proving God does exist. I found it fascinating and intellectually convincing.

  11. Marian

    Beautiful.

  12. Laura

    Hey, we finally disagree on something! Like Michelle, I actually found an atheistic notion of death refreshing. Well, I was OK with it, at least. It was actually the idea that there’s something above and beyond all of us that was frightening to me. So maybe that’s why I never, from the beginning, really thought too much of the afterlife. I was ready to convert back in April with absolutely no thought on the afterlife. It just didn’t seem important enough to factor into my decision. I never even thought about it until this strange lady started interrogating me about it during a friend’s Bible study, with questions kind of like what you mention: “Why do anything at all, if you’re just going to die?”

    I’m not really sure if there is a universal Catholic idea on this (I’m converting to Judaism), but my idea is that it kind of devalues this life when we focus too much attention on the afterlife. It’s like telling God that this world He made for us isn’t good enough, and we want more! That’s just me; I’m sure lots of people would disagree, even in Judaism.

    • Leila

      Laura, the reason we all have “longings” that we cannot explain is that we were actually made for something more. This world is an incredible gift, but it is also full of incredible pain and suffering. We all long for “something,” and that something is Heaven, which is perfect union with God.

      • Laura

        OK, that makes sense, thanks! (The idea in Judaism is that this union is achieved through mitzvot [commandments], so I guess I never thought of it that way.)

  13. Leila

    I remember this from the first time you ran it, and it has stuck with me. Thank you for your honesty.

  14. Amanda Rose/A Little One

    Wow,wow,wow! What a powerful post and thank you so much for sharing. I did find your response to death surprising, although you explained it so that I can now understand. As a child and teenager who wasn’t an atheist, but had not faith or religion, I was never afraid of death. I looked forward to a time when all the pain would end and I would just be nothing at all. I never thought about that being an odd way to think. Guess right now I should just be gratful for the gift of hope, as you have also clearly shown us here. Thanks!

  15. Genny

    Jennifer,

    This rang so true for me. While I did not grow up an atheist and I did believe in God and have a hope of Heaven, I didn’t truly understand my Christian faith and all of God’s amazing promises. I had a lot of fear that if I didn’t perform well or do all the right things, I might not get to Heaven, or God might not love me. I hadn’t yet internalized God’s sacrifice through Jesus.

    After forgetting about God for a while in college, it was a struggle with food and my self image that drove me back to Him. It was then that I really understood for the first time His deep love and how it changes life, and death… in so many ways. So when you talk about being free for the first time, I know what you mean.

    Thanks for this important post. 🙂

  16. sarah

    This is an interesting post. I’m a lifelong Catholic and I’ve always believed in the afterlife. But that hasn’t diminished my fear of death. I almost feel like my fear of death is worse since I do believe in the afterlife, because I not only have to worry about the pain of dying, I have to worry about being judged. I know that I shouldn’t have to worry if I avoid mortal sin, which I do try to do. But I’m sure I’ll have to go to purgatory, and that’s scary, too. Actually, even if I knew I was going straight to heaven, I would still be apprehensive. I guess just the idea that the supernatural exists kind of freaks me out, even if I know intellectually that we experience supreme happiness when we’re in heaven. It would almost be easier if I believed that we just cease to exist when we die, and it’s like how it was before we were born – no awareness at all. Now that would be nothing to worry about. Does this make sense? Can anyone relate?

    • Anthony

      “But I’m sure I’ll have to go to purgatory, and that’s scary, too”

      I’ve just finished reading “Hungry Souls”, which I can’t recomment enough, and the stories of, and evidence for the suffering of souls in Purgatory really make one contemplate the effect of sin on the world.

      But, here is the great news – you do not have to go to Purgatory. Jesus, in his incredible mercy, allows us to gain complete remission for our sins through the institution of Divine Mercy Sunday. You can researcg this on the web or here http://www.divinemercysunday.com/

    • LB

      Yes, I feel the same way. I was terrified of death as a Catholic. Terrified of judgment and particularly of hell, which any one unconfessed mortal sin could send me to.

      A materialist view of the world is unfair and terrifying in many ways, but at least your fate after death is certain.

  17. Thag Jones

    This is so well put. I used to think about that – how we were pretty much on death row, but it hadn’t occurred to me consciously that there was a way off that. I remember getting out of bed flying down the stairs as a kid (I might have been about 9, 10 or 11) thinking I was dying and about to rush in to tell my parents but then thinking better of the idea about halfway down. Perhaps that was my moment like yours, where my own mortality hit me in a really visceral way that wasn’t on the level of thought.

    I tried so hard for so long to believe in God and to accept that Jesus is the Son of God but somehow it kept eluding me. I pestered my Christian friends a lot, lol. I think my biggest mistake was not praying and I don’t remember anyone really telling me I should just pray, which is odd now I think about it. Or maybe they did and I had no idea how. Anyway, I’m still kind of in process but I have felt this too, that lighter than air feeling, and having suffered a lot of anxiety in my time, I don’t have nearly as much of that anymore – it’s a shadow of what it was. I was starting to think I needed meds, but what I needed was prayer. Thanks for re-posting!

  18. Just Me

    Absolutely love this post. So, so true. I’m posting to my FB.

  19. diane

    Everyone is assured of eternal life.We will be in Heaven or Hell-so it makes sense to choose wisely.A spiritual director told me God doesn’t condemn us we condemn ourselves by choosing an eternity separated from God because that was the life we chose here and we choose the familiar.

  20. Sarah Says

    Powerful, Jennifer! What an incredible story you have, thank you for sharing your insights.

  21. Sandra Plascencia

    The first time I ever read your podcast I was amazed with it.

    But now the more I read the more I like it.

    This description of yours about Atheism, is not only accurate but enough to leave someone speachless.

    I am mexican, living in Guadalajara Mexico

    I wish your writings were in spanish, so I could share them with a lot of people walking in the road of nihilism.

    God bless you and your beloved ones always and please keep writing!

  22. Stephanie

    Beautiful writing. What a powerful metaphor for how God’s grace transforms our life from one of despair to one of hope.

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