The Cycle of Life
In the children’s book, Fletcher and the Falling Leaves, Julie Rawlinson tells the story of Fletcher, a young fox living through his first autumn. When the leaves of his favorite tree start to lose their green sheen, Fletcher thinks the tree is sick and tries watering and feeding it. Still the leaves wither and turn brown. When they drop, Fletcher tries to reattach them to their stems. Nothing works. Finally, all the branches are bare. Despondently, Fletcher goes home. At his young age, he doesn’t understand the cycle of life and death and life. All he can see is that his beloved tree is dying, and he doesn’t want that to happen.
Like Fletcher, we fear losses, even little ones. When we can’t find a favorite ring or that book our daughter gave us, we fret. We have good company here, for the Bible tells us that even God weeps if one soul is lost to His grace. Like the the woman who searches ceaselessly for one missing coin and the shepherd who hunts for one of his sheep, God seeks us endlessly. None of us like loss. If we can avoid it, we will.
Chaos and Destruction
Recently, I asked a friend to do a tarot reading for me. Though I don’t think the cards, the Tao Te Ching, or other psychic tools have magical powers or predictive abilities, I find their symbolism can clarify questions I have or decisions I must make.
This time, instead of tarot, my friend had me pick a rune. Runes are letters in the ancient Germanic language. Back then, people believed words had the power to create life, to predict events, and to influence our future. In Nordic mythology, beings called Norns carved runes into the barks of trees in order to control the destiny of both gods and humans. Today, these Germanic letters, or runes, are used for divination.
Reaching into my friend’s satchel, I rooted around until my hand closed upon a stone. It was Hagalaz, the letter “H,” which means “hail.” The Hagalaz rune poem reads:
Hail is the whitest of grain.
It is whirled from the vault of heaven
and tossed about by gusts of wind,
then it melts into water. 
The meaning of Hagalaz is destruction or chaos, especially that chaos that comes from outside, from a force beyond our control. No matter what we do, we cannot stop hail from falling. Nonetheless, just as with everything else, we can choose how to respond to the storm. Hail can be violent, crushing plants and bruising animals, yet the water into which it melts nourishes life.
Out of the Storm Comes Life
That is the message of Hagalaz, that out of the storm comes growth, wisdom, expanded worldviews, a new freedom, and a liberation from past bondage. The Hebrew people did not want to leave Egypt, for the misery they knew seemed better to them than the possibility of a worse misery in the desert they did not know. Like them, we must usually be forced from the comfortable predictability of our lives, even if we are miserable.
Change brings loss, no matter how benign, and loss hurts.
Not only do I experience this in my own life, but I see it the lives of others as I sit with them and listen to their stories. Most people I visit as a chaplain tell me about their losses. Whether of a loved one, a home, a body part, health, faith, a job, a worldview, or a role in the family, their loss shakes them up and tears them down.
They don’t like it, and neither do we. To try to avoid the pain of loss, we cling to jobs we hate, refuse to leave partners who abuse us, and hold onto irrational beliefs. To face the shattering of our worldviews and the horrible ache of grief can seem too terrible.
Yet without loss, there can be no life. Obviously, growth requires change, and change requires loss. If plants and animals don’t die, we will have no food. If we humans refuse to die, eventually nothing else will be born. Even knowing this, we are brought to our deaths, both big and small, rebelling and resisting.
Without Death there Can Be No Life
Fredrick Backman writes about this in his novel, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. When seven-year-old Elsa’s grandmother dies from cancer, she discovers a series of letters her grandmother left for her to deliver to people to whom her grandmother needed to apologize. The journey brings Elsa into contact with many strange and wonderful people who teach her much about life, love, and death. One of the creatures Elsa comes across is a huge and terrifying dog who soon becomes her devoted and beloved companion. Toward the end of the book, the dog dies, on the same day that Elsa’s baby brother is born. Elsa realizes then that we have to die so we can make space for something else. The losses and the challenges Elsa experience make her wiser, kinder, and more understanding. From loss, we grow and change. From death, we create life.
Most stories and myths offer this same message. For there to be life, there must be death. We see this in the story of the phoenix who rises from the ashes of his funeral fire. Although the Hebrew God destroyed the world in a flood, He allowed Noah and his family to populate an ark so that life could bloom again. Though volcanoes and forest fires destroy trees and kill animals, a new ecosystem grows in the rich soil left by the destruction. Hindu teachings explain that the universe was created by a seed that exploded, spreading life throughout the cosmos, but one day this universe will collapse upon itself, forming a new seed that will start the cycle over again. Life brings death brings life.
Odin Sacrifices Himself to Himself
In Nordic mythology, Odin is a god who also died to create a new kind of life. Hanging himself from Yggdrasil, the World Tree, Odin sacrificed himself to himself, suffering through nine long days and nights of thirst, hunger, and pain, until at last he perished and was reborn. He did this so he could gain the power of the runes, the power of controlling his people’s destiny. In this way, he could bring healing and hope.
In his article about Odin and the runes, Daniel McCoy recounts a story about Egil, an Icelandic hero, whose journey takes him to a farmhouse where a daughter of the house is in bed, dying. Egil discovers a whale bone strapped to the side of her bed, covered in runes. Apparently meant to heal, the runes decorating the bone are actually malevolent and are causing the girl’s sickness. By destroying the bone and replacing it with proper healing runes, Egil saves the girl’s life. Thus we learn that runes have the power to harm or to heal.
This power is what Odin died for. We so want to control our lives, to protect ourselves and those we love from the Norns and the hail and the destruction.
Jesus Sacrifices Himself to Himself
Odin’s story seems not unlike Jesus’, for he also sacrificed himself to himself, one self being the Son and the other Father. Through his death, Jesus became the Christ who gained power over life and death. One difference in the two stories is that Christ vanquished death entirely. No longer do we perish into a listless emptiness, as do the Shades who wander through Hades. According to Christian theology, when we die, our bodies will rise into some kind of heaven where healing is forever, and all is well, and nothing will ever frightens us again. In Heaven, there is no more loss.
Interestingly, this triumph over death occurs only through death itself. Not only did Odin and Jesus have to die, but we must die. Until we give up everything we know and love, including our own bodies, we cannot gain power over our destiny, we cannot reach that blissful paradise.
Death and Transformation
Myths and folk tales speak of the powerful and wonderful transformations that destruction brings. Religions around the world tell of birth and rebirth, because it is the story we witness every day. Leaves fall every autumn, yet new leaves sprout every spring. Hail harms as it crashes down, then melts to feed life.
The rune I picked, Hagalaz, predicts cataclysmic change for my life. In a way, this is scary. What might I lose? Nothing I would choose to give up, certainly. If it’s easy to give up, the loss will not transform me.
No, the chaos of Hagalaz is not in my control. They say we can control how we respond to what life brings us. To a greater or lesser, this is true. So I can remember that without chaos there can be no creation, and without death there would be no life. I can let go of that which no longer belongs to me, whether it is a home, a person, a job, or even an idea. Then there will be space for something else, for another life.
To predict change in a person’s life, even drastic change, is hardly risky, for our lives are filled with change. Over and over, that which we think we need is taken from us. Over and over, we must learn how to let go and become the person the challenges of our life prepare us to be. The hard part isn’t the liberation change can bring; the hard part is grieving what is gone.
Learning to Grieve
Yes, the transition is difficult. Shattering our old worldview so we can find a new one is heart-wrenching. Nonetheless, if we expect to have room in our hearts and our souls for new ideas, new relationships, or new wisdom, we must first let go of old ones. The wisdom we have when we are twenty is not sufficient for us at forty or sixty or eighty. If we cling to it, we will stagnate. To stagnate is its own kind of death.
In the Oregonian, I read about Mike Hughes, a man who is building a rocket so he can fly into the atmosphere above the Mohave desert and photograph what he is certain will be a flat world. He believes the idea of a “ball earth” is a conspiracy.  Why our government would concoct such a conspiracy, I’m not sure Hughes even wonders about, but clearly something in him so needs this idea of flatness, or of a conspiratorial NASA, that he is willing to discount every reasonable truth and experience we have about the world. Even if we aren’t as deluded as Hughes, losing our worldview can devastate us.
Many losses devastate us. If we love, we will lose, and if we lose, we will hurt. None of us want to hurt. Yet if we allow ourselves to mourn the little losses that pile up in our life, we will usually find that the big losses don’t hurt as much. If, on the other hand, we refuse to grieve, if instead we numb ourselves or distract ourselves, then each new loss will bring not just its own pain, but also the pain of every loss we haven’t faced. If we grieve them, our little losses prepare us for bigger ones, including our own death. Learn to let go, to mourn, and to heal. In chaos and destruction lie the seeds of life again.
In faith and fondness,
- See http://meadhall.homestead.com/untitled3.html.
- Wang, Amy B. and Avi Selk, “Man’s Plan to Launch in Homemade Rocket Hits Speed Bump; Proof of Flat Earth Must Wait,” Washington Post, reprinted in The Oregonian, November 25, 2017, A10.
Copyright © 2017 Barbara E. Stevens