A Living Death

From “The Inward Road and the Way Back”
by Dorothee Soelle, 1929-2003

“Man does not live by bread alone!" In fact, bread alone kills us. To live by bread alone is to die a slow and dreadful death in which all human relationships are mutilated and strangled. Of course, such a death by bread alone does not mean that we cease to exist. Our bodies still function. We still go about the chores and routines of life; we accomplish things; we breathe; we produce and consume and excrete; we come, go, and speak. Yet we do not really live. In Samuel Beckett's play “Happy Day” there is a character by the name of Winnie, a woman of about fifty. In the first act Winnie is buried in sand up to her waist; nonetheless, she chatters away, brushes her teeth, rummages about in her handbag and feels sorry for her husband. In the second act, she is buried up to her chin and can no longer move her head. All relationships are severed, but that stream of idle chatter, in which she takes herself so seriously, flows on and on. That is a kind of death; that is what hell is like, being buried in sand, unable to change things and yet without pain, content to while away the time.

“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” This is the living death by bread alone.

Death by bread alone means being alone and then wanting to be left alone; being friendless, yet distrusting and despising others; forgetting others and then being forgotten; living only for ourselves and then feeling unneeded; being unconcerned about others and wanting no one to be concerned about us; neither laughing nor being laughed at; neither crying for another nor being cried for by another. How horrible is this death by bread alone.

I have a neighbour, an elderly, childless man whose wife died not long ago. One day he called me over to show me some damage, the scratches some children had made on his property with their bicycles.

"Just look at what they have done," he said, "this house is all we have."

Man dies by bread alone. My neighbour had worked for what he had. He lived in that house, kept it in repair. took care of it.

“This house is all we have," he had said.

Suddenly it dawned on me that this man was dead. He had died from no longer having any kind of relationship with another human being.

This is what the Bible means when it speaks of death. Death is what takes place within us when we look upon others not as gift, blessing or stimulus but as threat, danger, competition. It is the death that comes to all who try to live by bread alone. This is the death that the Bible fears and gives us good reason to fear. It is not the final departure we usually think of when we speak of death; it is that purposeless, empty existence devoid of genuine human relationships and filled with anxiety, silence, and loneliness.

“I am reckoned among those who go down to the Pit," the psalmist cries.

He is speaking here of himself as one who is already dead, who has been laid away in the grave and now dwells in darkness, friendless and in misery.

“I am a man who has no strength,
like one forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom thou dost remember no more,
for they are cut off from thy hand.

“Thou hast put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Thy wrath lies heavy upon me
and thou dost overwhelm me with all thy waves.
Thou has caused my companions to shun me;
thou hast made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.”

Grief isolates us. It kills us by destroying the relationships that are the heartthrob of life. We experience the same grief, depression and defeat that the psalmist experienced; it is death by bread alone.

The death of which the Bible speaks lays hold of us in the very midst of life. It is the boredom and emptiness of going through the motions of living while being totally drained of all humanity and reduced to the level of an old workhorse.

The parable of the prodigal son is an example of the death the Bible talks about. The prodigal son went to a far country with high hopes, but he ended up tending another man's swine. He worked for starvation wages, for bread alone. In short, he lived by bread alone. This is why his father spoke of him as being dead. The prodigal son had no human ties. There was no one with whom he could speak. He was something to be used. There among the swine, he simply vegetated away without any hope that things would change for him. According to the Bible, this kind of existence cannot be called living. It is simply vegetating, going through the motions of living. To be sure, the prodigal son went through the motions, but he certainly was not living. Existing there among the swine was death in the midst of life. This is how the prodigal son's father saw it. Jesus saw it that way too. We have to make the same distinction between existing and living.

“Survivre n’est pas vivre" (“to survive does not mean one is living.”) University students wrote this on the walls of Paris in May 1968.

Struggling along, surviving, trying to make ends meet, that certainly is not living. On the contrary, that is the very death that threatens to swallow us up.

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