Fearing Death

4th in a Series on Fear. See: Fearing Failure, Religious Nostrums, and Viral Fear

A young girl would appear in my backyard from time to time playing with the neighborhood kids when my girls were preschool-aged and encountering so much of the world for the first time. Raven-haired and lithe, this girl was in 3rd or 4th grade. She was kind to my little ones but had an older brother who apparently had taught her some words of the four-letter variety which she passed on to some of the other kids in our cul-de-sac. She disappeared from the scene not long after. Turns out her father had died a few years before and there were other unnamed issues that mumbled their way around the neighborhood gossip channels. I was not privy to any of this. I merely saw a nice girl then did not see her again.

Years later a house near ours came up for sale. Turns out it was hers. I looked up the owner’s name and stumbled across the deceased father’s record of his passing. He had liver cancer. With bold honesty he let the world into his medical care — chemo, surgeries, the return of the cancer and its fatal spread — detailing both his experiences and feelings through the course of treatment. His most poignant and difficult moments come near the end. They are gut-wrenching. He wrote of his anger and pain when his kids were the same age mine are now. The hope he had with each treatment faded, his future responses growing increasingly jaded, his anger raw. He wrote:

“I just don’t know what else to do or how to act anymore. I mean where is the text book on learning to die. Or the instruction manual on how to choose death over living. Or to choose allowing people to do things for you even though you don’t always want it?”

He passed away only a few months after writing these words. I never knew the man and never met the family beyond the young girl who appeared for a summer then found other places to be during her school breaks. Yet I mourned with them all as I read his account, some eight years old when I came across it but still as fresh and as raw as when he wrote it.

Death is a horrible surety, and awful and frightening proposition that none of us will escape.

“You are sure to die,” the Lord said to Adam. This threat was to be a preventative motivator. Interestingly, it was a motivator given just after the very genesis of life, when a concept of death could hardly be understood by the protohumans. How could Adam know what death was in the Garden? But somehow Adam did know, or God would not have given the threat. Death was fearful from the get-go. God was correct, of course. Adam did die, as did Eve. Their deaths were delayed a bit; they did not die the moment they touched the forbidden fruit, as the snake had lied and said they would, but later, more naturally. They died, as did their children and their children’s children and now we all die. Everyone dies.

The surety of death does nothing to diminish death’s power over our imaginations. We know we will die, but the reality of our own deaths is impossible to conceive. Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death won a Pulitzer Prize for identifying in psychology what we see in Genesis 2: much (perhaps most) human action is motivated by the fear of death. Because humans are unique in our ability to reflect and cognitively analyze our own existence, we recognize inevitable death and rage against it. We have profound terror and anxiety from death. Culture is our buffer to this terror. We adopt cultural worldviews that instill life with meaning and guard us from our own subconscious terror. Becker’s main thesis is that these cultural worldviews — civilizations and religion — allow us to create symbolic selves that are fundamentally immortal and imbue our lives with purpose. Conflict arises when our “immortality projects” run into one another and different worldviews tear down their respective death-defeating systems. Cultures exist to protect us from our biological selves and, most importantly, our fear of death.

Likewise, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross argued in her On Death and Dying that culture and, in particular, religion adopt meaningful ways of dealing with death itself, not just the defeat of death as Becker covers:

“The ancient Hebrews regarded the body of a dead person as something unclean and not to be touched. The early American Indians talked about evil spirits, and shot arrows into the air to drive the spirits away. Many other cultures have rituals to take care of the “bad” dead person, and they all originate in this feeling of anger which still exists in all of us, though we dislike admitting it. The tradition of the tombstone may originate in this wish to keep the bad spirits deep down in the ground, and the pebbles that many mourners put on the grave are left-over symbols of the same wish. Though we call the firing of guns at military funerals a last salute, it is, perhaps, the same symbolic ritual as the Indian used when he shot his spears and arrows into the skies. I give these examples to emphasize that man has not basically changed. Death is still a fearful, frightening happening, and the fear of death is a universal fear even if we think we have mastered it on many levels.”

Though Becker and Kubler-Ross have different purposes in writing, both arrive at a very similar conclusion, as Ross puts it: “we may achieve peace-our own inner peace as well as peace between nations-by facing and accepting the reality of our own death.” A broad view of the world since the 1970s reveals that their works, insightful and award-winning as they were, did not bring about the advancement of peace through the broader acceptance of the reality of death. People still “rage, rage against the dying of the light” in myriad destructive ways. Even those who accept death still fear it, causing all sorts of personal crises and mental illness. Death’s power as a threat remains in full force as it did from the first day in the Garden.

Fearing Death

My daughters have both gone through long phases of fearing death. At least once a week we pause our show or put down our books as we incline our ears for the creak of the stairs (something to be said for old stairs, the great gift to parenthood) as one of our girls makes her way to our comforting arms. “I had a nightmare,” they say, meaning they had a frightful thought of death. Lately my oldest has thought our Carbon Monoxide detector would fail and we would all die in our sleep. Our younger daughter cried the night after her first fire alarm test at school. She had a nightmare of everyone at school dying a fiery death because they couldn’t get out on time. We console them as best we can, but their fears are neither inconsequential or foolish. These are children confronting death in new and real ways every day.

The fear of death begins around age 5. Children gradually become aware of biological death even as they grow into their own humanity, causing an odd duality in their perceptions of new experiences: “this is new and neat” occurs almost at the same time as “this can kill me or those I love.” Inevitably someone or something nearby dies and children inquire. Or they see a new way of dying on the news or hear it in conversation. Fear rises when they connect the possible to the personal. Psychologists have created scales and tests to study the way children learn about and fear death, including the Death Anxiety Scale for Children or the Fear Survey Schedule for Children. Death is the most commonly feared item from childhood through adolescence.

Our childhood fears of death are both vague and imaginative, and even as children we arrive at different kinds of methods of coping with death. As Kubler-Ross notes, “Many a parent will remember remarks of their children such as, ‘I will bury my doggy now and next spring when the flowers come up again, he will get up.’” Death gets bound up in wish-destruction as children hope against death only to be met time and again with the permanence of death. I recall my children asking about a beloved cat, Angel, for days and weeks later. “Will we see him again?” they ask. Only finality and acceptance bring closure. “I miss him,” my daughter said recently, now six months removed from his death. I told her that I miss him too and we moved on with our days. Still, I expect Angel to come up again, and once again to remind them of the permanence of his passing.

Our childhood confrontation with and fear of death can intensify in young adulthood into thanatophobia, death anxiety, in all its various forms. We all know the person afraid of heights or terrified of spiders. These deep-rooted fears are not merely fears of the thing itself but, rather, fear of the effects of that thing. The person afraid of heights is not afraid of heights or even falling. The person afraid of heights is afraid of landing and the subsequent pain or death. Same with spiders, frogs, clowns (those hidden murderers), and so on. This kind of fear is identified as “predatory death anxiety” by psychologists. This is the fear of the disciples in a rocking boat, prodding Jesus to wake up and help them. Every time the Lord says “do not be afraid or discouraged,” he is confronting the fear of predatory death. “Do not be afraid of them,” God says to Joshua. And Moses. And king after king after king. And to the prophets. Even Christ to his disciples. . Every time we read these words “do not be afraid,” we read them in the context of someone making a bad decision in response to predatory fear.

Predatory death anxiety surfaces in incredibly pernicious ways. Consider the Israelite spies: their fear of death lead a whole nation into exile. It is the fear that brought Isaac to lie about his wife, saying “she is my sister” because “he thought, ‘They will kill me to get her, because she is so beautiful.’” When Peter socially isolates Greek converts, he does so because he was afraid of the response of Jewish converts in town. Most damningly, many kings in the Old Testament forge alliances with neighbors against the will of God, leading to all sorts of prophetic condemnations and, ultimately, to destruction and exile. The atheistic, protectionist response to predatory fear lead to those fears becoming fully realized by the hand of God Himself.

In our personal lives, anxiety about death and pain can drastically limit our experience of life. We know the usual fears; fear of heights keeps people from mountaintops; fear of new foods limits palates and robs people of potential pleasure; fear of germs and diseases keep people shut inside or lead them to awkward greetings to avoid handshakes; and so on. Anxieties like this are not the most devastating form of predatory unless they are taken to the extreme. More commonly, our little phobias just give us a lack of comfort in everyday situations. They are hills to be climbed, not cliffs to be conquered. But for some these fears can become diseases and even self-fulfilling prophecies. People with a tragic fear of society self-isolate and then truly cannot incorporate into society when they try. Intense germaphobes fail to develop antibodies for common illnesses and do die from relatively common diseases. In these rare cases, anxiety itself leads to death.

Another form of death anxiety has become more common of late, especially in the Body of Christ: predation anxiety, or the fear of hurting others. This fear can operate on a physical or emotional level. On the physical level, I would like to imagine that people driving under the speed limit in the left lane of the highway are suffering from acute predation death anxiety and are thus unintentionally doing the very thing they want to avoid. By driving five under the speedy lane, they drain my life and the lives of thousands of other normal drives in America every day. Please don’t let your anxieties ruin our lives!

Seriously, though, predation death anxiety can be paralyzing in its most extreme form: it is like germaphobia or social anxiety, a kind of self-isolation that keeps people from affecting the world in anyway. Or people with this dread become increasingly depressed as they repeat the thought, “I will only hurt other people. I am no good to the world.” This is a devastating effect of this form of fear. These people cannot see past the ways they have hurt others in the past and refuse to see any good they may have done in their lives. They cannot believe anyone would want to be near them and firmly believe that the world would be better of without them. In bitter irony, they attempt to take their own lives as a means of sparing the lives of others. Acute sufferers from this kind of anxiety think they are committing the most selfless act in the world in their suicides, blindly unaware of the intense selfishness of their behavior.

But this is not the common form of this kind of fear. Our churches are filled with people too afraid of hurting other people to engage in real personal relationships. They neither want to hurt nor be hurt by others. So they keep relationships at the superficial. We kindly ask “how are you” to one another without caring to hear the answer and not once offering a real answer in return. The superficial is both comfortable and easy, requiring nothing of our time or attention. Worse, when the answer proceeds past the superficial and we sense something wrong — some error or personal crisis requiring intervention — we more often than not allow the moment to pass without injecting ourselves into the situation in a meaningful fashion. We are not “there,” in the moment, present with others in their suffering and pain. We are not because we don’t want to hurt others, I think, or are just lazy. Assuming the best of good Christian folks, though, I hope it is the former. We are so nervous that we will say the wrong thing that we say nothing instead. Christ, quiet as he was, was not silent in the face of distress. He confronted the woman at the well, he interceded with his disciples and the Pharisees alike. He did not withhold difficulty sayings for fear of hurting others. The Lamb of God, a bruised reed He would not break, sure did not mind hurting feelings. He did not have predation anxiety.

How many family gatherings pass without meaningful conversation for fear of opening up old wounds? How many parents withhold needed conversations for fear of upsetting their children or comforting a crying kid? The worst kids are often the product of parents too scared of upsetting their children to ever parent them. These parent do not punish, exhort, rebuke, or correct, and their lack of parenting shows in their kids. Every teacher can tell you the kids who say “yes ma’am” and listen with respect are the same kids who get put in time out, have their toys taken, and get dressed down by mom and dad on occasion for their misbehaviors. Predation anxiety among parents works exponentially as bad kids have rebellious children of their own.

The fear of hurting others has allowed more space for false teaching in modern Christianity than has ever existed. The entire health-and-wealth business exists because religious people seeking a threat-free environment are fed by the teachings of preachers who do not want to offend. Listen to a Joel Oste ministry and you will not find one criticism, one threat, one judgement, one single moment of meaningful interaction with his audience beyond “you’re OK and I’m OK.” This repugnant lie feeds the comfort-seeking audience who leave without ever once confronting the face and voice of an unrelentingly violent and difficult God. Jesus is even muted as his criticisms and talk of hell are ignored. This is health-and-wealth: God wants you to feel good. It is anxiety-appeasement by avoidance at its finest.

These fears borne of the fear of death — predatory and predation anxiety — are corruptions of good fears. We ought to fear what can hurt us, inasmuch as that fear leads us to take corrective and protective measures against potential violence. We ought to fear hurting others, inasmuch as that fear helps us to love others and speak truth in love. Loving others demands a fear that is actually far deeper than mere predation anxiety: we ought to be so afraid for the souls of those around us that we speak painful truths for the good of their eternal souls. Like interventionists speak pain into the lives of addicts, we ought to be so afraid for the immortal condition of the people around us that we tell the truth, even at the expense of those very friendships. This can be painful, telling the truth, but totally necessary. The lack of such truth telling leads to tepid congregations, superficial relationships, failed marriages, and broken families. Fear of hurting others and the fear of being hurt can tear asunder the real tendons of love and truth that bind us together.

Life Extension

Even as the fear of death rends relationships and isolates us, we find a renewed engagement in the work of extending life past the rare century mark. The Life Extension Foundation was founded in 1980 as just one of a thousand examples of man’s inability to accept death. The Foundation’s state purpose is to fund research on life extension and anti-aging. The back pages of large monthly magazine advertise various chemical schemes to extend life. Silicon Valley has taken up the banner of eternal life by hacking life. There is even a “Palo Alto Longevity Prize,” awarded to the first team that can restore vitality and extended the lifespan of mice by 50%. Other anti-aging efforts abound: Human Longevity Inc, Theranos, Ellison Medical Foundation, Sens Research Foundation, and many others. Surprise: people don’t want to die.

This phrase “anti-aging” is so prevalent in commercials and research journals that it has become accepted nomenclature, something that people seek like money or more free time. But consider the implications of the phrase itself: against aging. Given that aging has been part of the human experience from the first, anti-aging is a form of self-loathing, hating something both integral and inevitable in your life and mine. We might as well be anti-childhood or anti-youth. Anti-aging implies there is some sweet spot of human life wherein we would all be happy. What age is that? 34? My knees hurt and I have high blood pressure. 24? I wanted a great deal more money and had the attention span of a gnat. 14? Please, no. Anti-aging is self-hate. You hate the future you before you ever get there.

Strangely, anti-aging efforts and life extension research is also an intense and destructive form of self-love. These life extenders not only hate their dying and decrepit selves; they also are madly in love with their current selves. They love that their minds work a certain way, their bodies function as they do, and their existence is sure from day to day. The promise if living well as long as possible can take precedence over other forms of research or activism that could have more immediately positive effects. While Bill Gates is eradicating malaria in Africa, these folks are so in love with their own bodies that they pour their billions into adding that extra year or decade on at the end. Some take the step of pre-paying for an eternal freeze, having their bodies and brains preserved for what they view is an eventual discovery of bringing life back after death. Eternal life is the goal, and every measurable step is a victory against the otherwise-inevitable.

Anti-aging is also a terrifying glimpse into the abysmal lack of hope for unbelievers. “Yes, we are fully confident,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:8, “and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord.” Life extension advocates have no hope but to cling to their mortal bodies in frail hope of the anti-aging singularity, when the first pill adds a hundred year and the next one, discovered some fifty years later, give you another hundred years, and so on. Without this hope of actual eternal life there is only despair, for one day, despite the best efforts of even the smartest and richest of Silicon Valley gurus, they, too, will die. Their efforts are the same as the ancient warriors cry of “remember me!” They are the same work of the leaders of yore who memorialized themselves in idols. They see the yawning chasm of nothing beyond their deaths, and they cannot stand it. They cannot imagine a world beyond their own or a self that is not their bodies at present. Fear of death has conquered them and they do not know it.

This self-loving, self-hating, hopeless refusal to acknowledge death as an inevitable and even welcome facet of human life trickles down to all of our everyday lives. Diets are the most common example: it seems as though no one eats what they think they should eat. When it comes to food, we are all Romans 7:21, “that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong.” Seems as though everyone diets, cheats the diet, complains about the diet, changes the diet, or thinks they should be dieting because everyone else is. Some of diet is motivated by and body ideals: we want to look a certain way. But more often diet is motivated by perceived health as we think, “if I would eat right, I would feel right, live longer, and be healthier.” Diet is the first line of our anti-aging efforts.

Michelle Allison, herself a dietitian, recognizes the fear of death in diet culture, writing in The Atlantic:

“This is why arguments about diet get so vicious, so quickly. You are not merely disputing facts, you are pitting your wild gamble to avoid death against someone else’s. You are poking at their life raft. But if their diet proves to be the One True Diet, yours must not be. If they are right, you are wrong. This is why diet culture seems so religious. People adhere to a dietary faith in the hope they will be saved. That if they’re good enough, pure enough in their eating, they can keep illness and mortality at bay. And the pursuit of life everlasting always requires a leap of faith.”

The cosmetic industry is the next line of defense against age and death. Every cream, shampoo, scruffer, fluffer, scraper, loofah, clipper, paste, oil, ointment, balm, lotion, conditioner, salve, and sealant seems made to defy age and its effects. Or, at least, they are sold as such. Cosmetics — and cosmetic surgery — are dedicated to the preservation of a certain age, whether moving toward that age from childhood to youth or back to that age from our latter years. Cosmetics are not inherently bad — nothing wrong with trying to look our best — but cosmetics nowadays borders on medical treatment in its promises to roll back the years and restore youth. The main issue is not the cosmetics themselves but the cost people pay for chemicals to fight nature and time. Why? With age comes wisdom and a beauty of its own. What do we gain with our frightful clinging to youth? We are fighting the tidal wave of time with punches and kicks, like a child fight the ocean. We only cost ourselves a great deal of money. Time always wins. Wear make-up if you’d like, but don’t be fooled for one second: all the make-up in the world cannot stop the ticking of the clock.

Cosmetic surgery is more than questionable. While some plastic surgery, such as the dozens of stiches I had done on my eye socket after I ran into a wall in college, helps maintain a natural facial or body appearance in the event of an accident or medical condition, plastic surgery done to maintain youth has the effect of pickling juice on a cucumber. At first, it changes the look and feel of the changed person. The cucumbers become pickles. But then the pickles stay in the jar too long, get soggy, start to stink, and ultimately have no value. So with anti-aging cosmetic surgery: a nip here, a tuck there, and you might have a few years gone. But witness the long-term effects of plastic people. They look both odd an inhuman. We are not made to be augmented with plastic. Our skin can only stretch so much and so often. Cosmetic surgery is just a frail and pathetic cry against the unrelenting passage of time. Death wins, wrinkles win, and our bodies do have a natural end.

Accepting Death

Death cannot be postponed or defeated so wistfully, with cremes and plastic. Conquering the fear of death cannot be accomplished by trying to live forever or living in a fantasy world of ageless beauty. The fear of death only intensifies when it breaks through the thin Maginot Line of our anti-aging efforts. We see death, feel it when our loved ones pass, and experience the relentless passage of time toward our inevitable demise. The fear of death happens precisely because we hate death and want to deny death’s eventual omnipotence over life. Ending the fear of death, then, does not begin with fighting death on the field of anti-aging and life extension but rather accepting the reality of death and moving on with life as it is.

When the Lord promised to Adam, “you shall surely die,” in Genesis 2, he created a facet of life that was unnatural in the garden but totally unavoidable outside of it. Separated from the Tree of Life, Adam and Eve would be unable to sustain their own lives. The only regeneration came from creating new subsequent generations in childbirth. Even Adam’s effort to provide food would come at great cost, with sweat and toil, with the seasonal confrontation with death in the cycle of crops. The first deaths — animals — came at the hands of God as he provided clothing for his fallen creations. Everything around mankind dies. Everything he touches dies.

Death then saturates the Scriptures. I often remind parents and students alike that the Bible is fundamentally an R-rated story, with murder from the first pages (to go along with the sex, language, and so forth that comes later). With Adam and Eve we might find the comfort that while death happens, but at least it happens at a good old age. With Cain and Abel, though, we quickly realize that death often comes abruptly and at a young age. This theme — young death, tragic death — constantly repeats throughout the Old Testament. Adam’s promised death is relived in countless Old Testament tragedies, from individuals to families to nations. Death is unavoidable in Scripture.

Even after Christ, when we are promised eternal life through our Lord Jesus, we must still confront the reality of physical death and absence from the body. Christ defeats death, but he does not remove the experience of death. Every saint since Christ has died. The promise to Adam continues. The defeat of death in the Gospel does not remove the temporal pain of death or the sorrow of loss. Our loves ones will leave us. We operate under a compressed timeline from the day we are born, as the ticking clock continues unrelentingly until that day we breathe no more. Christians run the risk of claiming “pie in the sky by and by” if we deny the reality of death or the pain of loss for those left behind. The reality of eternal life does not abrogate or ignore the reality of physical death. “Each person is destined to die once,” the author of Hebrews wrote. Christianity does not ignored death; Christianity knows death intimately and accepts our common fate as dust creatures decaying from the womb.

Death after Death

We cannot assume, though, that accepting death is itself sanctifying or healing. Knowing death is assured, though necessary and true, does not lessen the fear of death. If anything, knowing death more surely can drive people to exacerbated behaviors in defiance of death to maximize whatever time is left of life. If death is the end, and we know death is inevitable, why would anyone ever restrain himself from hedonism or the mad grasp for power? Without hope after death, Hugh Hefner acted appropriately. We follow the observation of the teacher of Ecclesiastes, reasoning as a person without any knowledge of God:

It seems so tragic that everyone under the sun suffers the same fate. That is why people are not more careful to be good. Instead, they choose their own mad course, for they have no hope. There is nothing ahead but death anyway. There is hope only for the living. As they say, “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!.”

I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them under the sun.

Accepting death opens the door to the chasm of darkness beyond death. “What is next?” we wonder as we look beyond the cessation of our mortal lives. We know what we have now but have no idea of what is next, so we fight for our lives against time and age to cling to whatever we have now.

But woe to us if we end our thinking there, for our real fear ought to be the death after death. This is the death God is promising Adam and the cause for his confusion when he does not die immediately when God sees him. Remember God said “you are sure to die,” but when the man ate, he did not die. He did not die when God appeared to him later, in Genesis 3, though he was so afraid that he hid in the bushes. He did not die until a ripe old age. What death happened in the moment of eating the fruit? The second death happened. Immediately, Adam’s disobedience separated him from the presence of God. He was judged, as we all will be judged, and cast from the life-sustaining peace of God’s Garden.

The judgement of Adam and Eve will fall on all of us as well. The verse from Hebrews quoted above finished, “and after that [death] comes judgement.” So Paul writes “each of us will give a personal account to God.” And the Teacher in Ecclesiastes concludes “That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad.” Death after death is assured because this judgment, devoid of the intervention of the blood of Christ, will always be found wanting. “No one is righteous — not even one,” Paul says in Romans. God’s scales of justice, even as they are, always tip toward eternal death when man is in the balance. If we think we will pass this judgement, we lie to ourselves.

Christ had to confront the most law-abiding people of his time to press this point. The Pharisees knew the law, followed the law, wrote interpretations of the law, and enforced the law. They were judge and cop at the same time, utilizing their own behavior as the moral standard for others. So when Christ confronts them, he always leaves them bewildered and angry. Their moral judgments were insufficient. Their hatred for sin, raw and ready as it was, was somehow found lacking. They did not realize, as our Lord taught on the mountain, that the heart is wicked, murderous, envious, greedy, and awful, so all the reliance on good deeds in the face of coming judgment is as withering grass in the face of fire. Our hearts are bad; our hearts deserve the death after death.

Accepting mortal death leads us to consider the possibility of our souls (or hearts, or spirits, or whatever terminology we want to arrive at). Every culture has wrestled with the possibility of the beyond and the question of “what is next?” Just about every culture — I don’t have an exhaustive list — has arrived at some form of the person that transcends the flesh, the “real” being that outlives the skin which contains it. The question arrives: how does this “real” me survive my physical death? The frightening reality of these mental exercises is that we realized in our heart of hearts that we do not have a sufficient answer for the question. We ought not survive. We do bad things, think bad thoughts, and hurt others with wanton disdain. We begin to fear death more as we consider the death after death because, frankly, we have an inkling that we deserve to die.

So I ask you: are you ready to die? Maybe you have tomorrow. Maybe you don’t. Does this cause terror, or hope? Here is Christ: in the face of death, hope blazes most brilliantly. Death, where is your victory? Paul could say. Death, where is your sting? This mockery of death, which seems so flippant in the face of the mass suffering of the human experience, is the call of one who knows death has been conquered. Death, in Christ, is dead. And what fear do the living have of the dead?

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