The valleys of life

Essay by Annika Sander
Photography by Andris Søndrol Visdal


I don’t know how old I was when I first realised that me and everyone around me will die. Maybe it was late in the summer, when everything green was about to wither. Maybe it was when my first cat disappeared into the woods and never came back. Or maybe I realised it much later, when I saw people around me balancing on steep cliffs. 

In many ways, being alive and knowing that you and everyone around you will one day die is a paradox. You know it’s inevitable, but at the same time, it is impossible to imagine. The only thing I fear more than my own death is the death of the people I love. It is a paralysing fear that scares me so much that I sometimes try to prevent it from happening, even though I know it is impossible. Because we are all dying and we are all balancing on steep cliffs, just by being alive. 

I have always had a hard time accepting death, and I have often wondered why it doesn’t constantly occupy our minds. How do we manage to think about anything else? Of course, I realise that thinking of death constantly would make life hard, or even impossible, and that we probably have some kind of built-in mechanism that keeps us in denial from the inevitable. But maybe this mechanism works better for some than for others. I believe I am one of these ‘others’ and it has often filled me with either fear or resignation of what is the point? 

The fear of death is human. It is a condition that helps us survive, both as a species and as individuals, at least until our time comes. To cope with mortality, some people turn to religions that say that life never ends—that we are reborn again and again, just in different shapes. Others believe that we go to heaven and that life after death is even better than life here on earth. Some of us want to believe, because we know it would make living easier, but we can’t. Fortunately for us, there are stories to save our distressed souls as well. 

One of my favourite stories of all times is the story of the two brothers, Karl and Jonatan, in The Brothers Lionheart, by children’s book author Astrid Lindgren. The story is a comfort to all of us who struggle with thoughts on death, irrespective of whether we are children or grown-ups. In a beautiful universe, Lindgren explains life and death by telling the story about the place where we all go when we die—Nangijala. The story about the Lionhearts begins with the youngest brother, Karl, dying of tuberculosis. He is afraid and turns to his older brother Jonatan asking why some people have to die before they turn ten years old. 

To comfort Karl in his fear, Jonatan tells him about Nangijala. He explains that there is ‘a place from the time of campfires and fairytales that lies somewhere beyond the stars.’ In many ways, Nangijala reminds me of life on earth. It consists of two valleys: the beautiful cherry valley, where there is happiness and everything is possible, and the dark thorn rose valley, where there is misery and oppression. To me, that is a beautiful picture of how life works. Sometimes I find myself caught in the thorn rose valley, stuck with my own fears and feelings about not being good enough. But when I finally return to the cherry valley, I appreciate it even more. The contrast to the thorn roses makes the cherry tree blossom even more beautifully. 

Maybe the paradox of life and death works the other way around as well. Because being alive knowing that you would never die is also an unimaginable thought. Maybe there is a point when everything comes to an end. How would we otherwise learn to value and appreciate our life and the people we love? Maybe even our fears, at least to a certain degree, are a good thing. 

What we believe in isn’t important. It doesn’t matter if it is a religion practiced by millions, if it’s a story from a children’s book, or if it’s a fairytale told by a campfire in Nangijala. What matters is to find comfort in whatever helps you handle your fears. 

In the end, when the two brothers are once again faced with steep cliffs, Jonatan asks Karl if he is afraid.

"Yes, but I will do it anyway," Karl answers.