We Are Only Dust
October 10, 2018
One of the areas of consensus between most faith traditions and science is that all of us are made out of dust. We know the names of all that dust now. You and I are both a heaping pile of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen, with a few handfuls of nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorous, and trace amounts of other elements. We now have a general sense of where all that dust came from as well – from our food and before that our mama’s food and a long time before that from dying stars. But the basic insight has remained the same. Like our pets and predators and pens and paper, we are all made out of dust.
In the Jewish scriptures, adopted by both Muslims and Christians, this insight sometimes takes a tragic note. In the human origin stories, our dustiness is associated with our tiring labor for survival. We are told that in this hard life, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)
In the bleak existential poetry of Ecclesiastes, the poet also notes our earthy mortality in despair. “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20)
I feel this. I really do. Two nights ago I had a dream that someone I love died in a tragic accident. The next day I heard the news that a friend and colleague’s sister was terminally ill. Her kids are still in single digits. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it’s terrifyingly true.
As a pastor, I’ve said those words at too many funerals. I’ve looked out over coffins at grieving families and friends, trying to offer words of meaning and hope. I’ve poured ashes back into the earth and into the sea. I’ve sat with the ill and the dying – reading, whispering, singing to them in their rooms while the hospice worker or spouse takes a break; praying over their vulnerable bodies in their hospital beds. To be a member of the clergy of any faith is to be intimate with the dead and the dying.
All this has made it abundantly clear to me that as exalted and powerful and extraordinary as our species is, we are also very much of the earth. Out of the dust we are, and to dust we will return. That’s sobering. Yet it’s nothing like all bad news. For me, to know deep in my bones that we’re all of the dusty earth has been a profound source of help as well.
My own dusty mortality has been critical in my self-acceptance and – somewhat more slowly perhaps – in my acceptance of others. While the scriptures speak of our mortality in terms of tragedy, they also do so in terms of compassion. From the Bible’s songbook, we read:
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.
– Psalm 103-11-14
Unlike ourselves, the God of the Universe is relaxed about our weakness, and understanding of our flaws, because God knows we are dust.
A friend of mine sent me an article on obesity today, particularly the great shaming that those of us who are overweight so constantly endure – from our culture, from ourselves, and even from our physicians. One of the takeaways was to wonder what it would be like for our sanity and health if we just were to accept that we each have to do the best with the body that we have. To be kinder to ourselves, and to experience greater kindness and acceptance from others, would have a greater impact on our health and well-being than any well-meaning advice or criticism.
When I am most disappointed in myself or someone else, this has become my new mantra. We are only dust. When I remember this, I am reliably nudged toward acceptance and compassion, and better things happen next.
Secondly, the remembrance of our common origins and destiny in the ground has given me a greater sense of connection, both to other living things and to the earth. As much as spirituality and religion has always tried to help us come to grips with our mortality, it has also been concerned with our interest in figuring out our place in this world.
We face something of an epidemic of loneliness and alienation in our age. I know I personally both experience and fear loneliness even more than death. And yet to know that my neighbor and cashier and sons are all dust, that the public figures I most adore and those I most resent all share my same material origins and destiny, is to remind me that we are all connected. When I’m nervous or unmoored, I can literally touch the ground and know that no matter where I am, I am at home.
Finally, knowing we all are dust has sometimes given me profound hope. In my work with the dead and dying, I have seen suffering and frailty and despair. But as much as I have seen these things, I have seen the miraculous and ethereal dignity and beauty of the human spirit. I have heard stories of unexpected amends made as people face death. I have listened to the bone-deep faith and assurance of the dying that this is not the end of them. I have seen transcendent peace on the faces of the suffering and emaciated. We sing a song in my church now and then where we say to our Maker, “You make beautiful things out of dust. You make beautiful things out of us.”
The dust from which we’re made has coalesced into bodies that somehow find room for beauty, aspiration, hope, joy, and love, often even in the bleakest times and places. As we hear in Jurassic Park: Life finds a way.
From dust we come, to dust we will return. But what dust we are now. And as to what we are becoming – who’s to say it won’t be even more stunning?