May 242018
 

I am dying.

In truth, to the best of my knowledge, I’m a healthy 66-year-old with, I hope, many years ahead. None-the-less, I am dying…and so are you.

Because of cultural biases, I imagine many will find these words deeply disturbing. We resist open discussion of our mortality at great peril. There are, I am told, places where daily meditations on death are encouraged, and those people derive insights and happiness from the practice.

Recently, life encouraged me to think more about death. The week I sat down to write this essay I attended the wake of a friend who died after a fleeting battle with aggressive cancer, I had lunch with another friend who lost his wife of many years after a long fight with COPD, and I was encouraged to read Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life by Ira Byock, M.D. When life sends me a series of such powerful teachers, I prepare for the final exam.

Here’s what I have been reminded. Impermanence and death give life its ultimate meaning.

Suppose someone gave you a magnificent rose; a bloom of such splendor your heart leapt when you first witnessed its beauty. Suppose, in addition, it would never die, nor lose a speck of its glory. How long before your heart no longer even trembled in its presence? A week? Month? Year? Decade? At some point this miracle will have become invisible. Its glory will have faded. Its brilliance gone. Much of what brings joy and ecstasy to our lives derives from the impermanence of all things.

So too with human life. If we had an infinity of days ahead, soon, the miracle of each new day would become invisible. Its glory will have faded. Its brilliance, too, would be gone.

And yet, we not only deny death, we strive for its opposite: eternal youth. We wish for bodies that never decline in strength and vitality. We are on a continual search for remedies and rituals that eliminate all sources of suffering and sorrow. We struggle to hide anything that reminds us of our mortality. Elders are sent to senior communities. The disabled are cared for in institutions. Every ailment life offers demands immediate remedy. We act as if, by hiding all reminders of old age and mortality, death will forget to tap us on the shoulder.

Reading Byock’s work reminds me of the beauty that can flow from old age and even death. In a heart wrenching moment, Byock is speaking to an elder whose life was defined by community service and is now nearing death in full-time hospice care. After a life of caring for others, the dying man now detests the thought of having to be cared for. Byock reminds him:

The social responsibility you have so well exemplified is not limited to doing things for others. Interactions just like this, caring and being cared for, are the way in which community is created. I believe that community, like the word family, is more of a verb than a noun. Community comes about in the process of caring for those in need among us. It’s unfortunate now that you’re getting to see that side of it, but in allowing yourself to be cared for, and being a willing recipient of care, you’re contributing in a remarkably valuable way to the community. In a real sense, we need to care for you. Not just those of us in hospice, but the community we represent.

The most difficult moments of life, especially as we travel with those who are dying, offer vistas from which to view the astonishing panorama of life, its crescendos as well as its depths. I wonder how much wisdom, compassion, and love we extract from our lives as we attempt to extinguish even the thought of old age, suffering, and death.

Contemplation of my mortality and meditations on death have caused many tears to flow over the past week. But they have gifted me with renewed appreciation for the finitude of the days I have left…and I am even more grateful as each one arrives.

Jun 292011
 
The following piece was published today in Batavia Business, the monthly newsletter of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce.
 
“You were a little snappish” a friend told me, with a smile and glint in her eye, after a recent Chamber Board meeting. She was right…but I was hoping it wasn’t that obvious. While I may owe her an explanation, I actually owe it to myself.
A recent European trip to visit our daughter was intended to be no more than a tourist’s sojourn. As it turns out, the journey had unexpected consequences. Allow me to illuminate a few pieces of a puzzle that is emerging in my life—and then try to assemble them into some kind of coherent, yet still incomplete story.
One piece contains portraits of anonymous stone masons from the 13th century who spent their entire lives shaping and laying stones that became a cathedral in Nantes, France; an edifice that would not be completed for more than 20 generations. I stood in awe of their craftsmanship, and their dedication to a vision they had no hope of seeing to completion. Their contribution was essential…yet their identity forever lost.
While in Europe, and on my return, a second puzzle piece emerged from two intellectual excursions. In Europe I began a trek through a thousand-page volume called Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Since our return, I have been enjoying an 18-hour series of lectures entitled Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition by Professor Grant Hardy of the University of North Carolina.
The puzzle piece that forms as I study humanity’s wisdom traditions is that, like the stone masons of Nantes, untold millions of deeply philosophical humans contributed to the ideas that define and gird human wisdom and understanding, but for the vast majority, their contribution too, is essential, and their identity forever lost.
The third puzzle piece is defined by my experience of being immersed in cultures decidedly different from the one I left behind. As you walk the streets of European cities, it is common to hear a dozen languages—and see as many modes of dress—within a few short blocks. I became aware of just how much I don’t know about the world.
I arrived in Europe with some sense of being wise and worldly…and arrive in this moment having been reminded of my ignorance and naïveté.
The puzzle pieces strewn in front of me have something to do with the existential angst of being human. Most of us hope we will leave something behind that future generations will experience with admiration. I strive to make something of my time on this planet; from talking with people struggling not to end their lives, to teens struggling to understand theirs. Even the struggle to put these few words on paper is part of my search for meaning.
And yet, having come face-to-face with authors of our wisdom traditions and creators of monuments to human imagination, it is difficult not to view your own contribution with a skeptical eye. “Is this the best I could have done?”
 The roots of this story are nourished by a growing awareness of my own mortality and imminent loss of my identity to future generations. Until I come to terms with that angst, I will likely remain “a little snappish.”