When Autumn Shows Us How to Die and How to Truly Live

Autumn is visiting again. The world around me is dying. And the beauty of the death steals my breath. The grief of autumn draws us in, doesn’t it? The October sky is a cloudless ocean of blue—you feel like you could fall upward into it and be washed clean. In the evening, the long rays of a sun tilting toward the winter solstice cut the atmosphere in such a way that the world glows in high definition.

The autumn afternoon is my only companion as I perform my annual fall cleaning of the garage. The detritus of summer is flung about, a visual representation of the chaotic fun—life vests dangle from a dust-covered snow blower, and the bikes and scooters look like they mated and multiplied while we were busy with pools and sprinklers and backyard barbecues.

As I clear away the debris, I see an old box full of forgotten contents. I pull it down off the shelf and open the lid. I’m startled by what I find.

In autumn, the leaves in the canopy above rustle together, like the dry-chapped hands of an old man whose life has been hard but good. Trees prepare for slumber, and foliage everywhere dies in a brilliant show of oranges and yellows and reds. It’s like someone spilled paint on the world and the colors are getting better as they dry.

Inside the box is a tangled collection of my childhood trophies—surviving artifacts of my youth. I’ve tried to throw them away on several occasions, but I’ve never been able to pull the trigger.

Why?

Because the formula for our lifelong battle is actually pretty simple:

First, we enter the world with a self that is created for us—it is good and beautiful and knitted together with love. Then, our good and beautiful self rubs up against a wounded world and we get the message drilled into us, “Who you are isn’t good enough. You have to do better.” And finally, believing our original self isn’t good enough, we hide it and we scramble to create a false self—one we hope is good enough for the world.

Because shame clutches at our hearts, we clutch at trophies like a box full of proof: “See, everyone,” they proclaim, “I’m the most improved, I’m the most valuable, I have proven I’m good enough, I have proven I belong!”

In October, the school year is still a promise and not yet a curse, so kids skip to school and tumble home, tossing book bags on front steps and soaking up the hours of dwindling light before dinner. They frolic in the grief of the dying year. Heaps of rust-colored leaves dot the neighborhood and kids pile on the leaf-heaps like they are trampolines by God.     

I pick through the glittering bricks with which I built my false self, and I’m grateful for them. A kid needs accomplishment. He needs to learn his abilities and his strengths and what he is capable of. And I’m glad these trophies happened to me, because you have to hold a trophy in order to discover it is hollow—worth isn’t something anyone can win, worth is something everyone is born with.

So the part of me these trophies now represent—my false self and the need to constantly prove my worthiness—needs to die. I need to make sure these trophies don’t get packed away again. But I don’t want to do it alone. So, I call my wife to the garage, because the death of our false selves begins to lose a bit of its sting when we are joined in it.

In the Fall, the pristine lawns of summer give way to leaf-strewn yards. The superficial beauty we tried to create during the summer months with mowers and pruning shears and weed killer now replaced by a sacred beauty we can’t control. The smell on the air is sweet, and how is it that the scent of a dying world is getting better by the day?

As I grab the first trophy, I see the autumn day all around me and I think:

The dying of the world is not ugly. No, this dying is beauty etched right into the DNA of the earth. Maybe the earth knows something we don’t. Maybe the dying world is submerging us in the truth of death and resurrection: when autumn anticipates a springtime, when death is always a trigger for resurrection, then the dying need not be ugly.

Maybe the anticipation of a resurrection works its way back into the death itself and makes it a thing of beauty.

Maybe the earth knows this and maybe we all need to know it. Maybe we all need to know the death of our false selves anticipates the resurrection of our original selves—the flimsy self we have created traded in for the beautiful true self that was created for us.

As autumn explodes and winter approaches, cider is getting pressed and vegetables are getting canned and firewood is getting stacked and machinery is getting covered and the world is winding down. But the winding down feels sacred and sublime and tinged with an immutable joy. The grief of autumn draws me in.

One by one, I drop the trophies in the garbage can, disposing of these shiny little pieces of my false self. And the dying is hard but it isn’t ugly. It feels just right. It feels like an autumn day. And like a springtime resurrection of the soul, it frees me just a little more to reclaim my original, good-enough self.

No trophies required.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.