Lesson 12 — Making Death Real
I recently heard about a 93-year-old woman whose doctor told her that she was dying. Upon hearing the news she became outraged at the cruelty of fate.
“Why ME?” she demanded to know.
Why any of us? But that’s just the way it is. For 93 years this woman had been “unable to take in the idea of dying,” as Lewis Thomas put this strange human failing. In St. Jerome’s words: “Every day we are dying, and yet we fancy ourselves to be eternal.”
If we could somehow manage to understand at age 23 or 43 — rather than at 93 — that our body is absolutely guaranteed to stop functioning, and all too soon, I’m confident that our remaining years would be better for it. Each of us lives under a death sentence. And for most of us it is only when we deeply realize this that we begin to see each day as precious and begin to live our remaining time with intensity and a sense of purpose.
The younger the age at which we can put aside the delusion of personal immortality, the longer that period of intense, focused living is likely to be. A clear sense of our own eventual death is a great clarifier and adjuster of priorities. Being aware of our death makes us think about the meaning and significance of our life. It leads us to imagine ourselves at the moment of death looking back on our lives, and prompts us to ask: “Does the life I am living have the meaning I want it to have?” If we don’t like the answer to that question, it is nice to still have enough time left to do something about it.
If we drop the close-up personal perspective for a moment and stand back, we can see that each human life is, in a sense, an experiment being run by the cosmic process. The details of this experiment, however, are not all determined in advance. The consciousness associated with each experiment is capable of changing the conditions and the direction of that experiment. It is possible for the human mind to revamp and refine the experimental plan, and turn our lives into more interesting, more creative, more productive experiments. Becoming deeply aware that we will die can help this to happen. Awareness of death is often one of the preludes to becoming serious about getting a meaningful life — about approaching the time that remains with a sense of purpose and direction, rather than just letting whatever happens happen.
What does it take to wake us up? What can we do to make our death become real to us? The default option is just to wait. Simply growing older eventually does it for almost everyone. Gail Sheehy noted that many people catch their first glimpse of “the dark at the end of the tunnel” when they reach their forties. But upon getting that first glimpse, many people immediately push the awareness of death out of consciousness. For them, the terror of non-existence makes death too painful to dwell upon. Still, for almost everyone the truth does manage to sink in before age 93.
A big personal scare can speed up the process. Many people who have survived a life-threatening accident or illness have, as a result of that experience, redirected their lives. So have some who simply sat through a few agonizing days, waiting for the pathologist’s report on a tumor biopsy, even when the tumor turned out to be benign.
The terminal illness and death of someone we know and care about — a grandparent, a parent, a friend — can also lead us to ponder our own mortality. Today, with AIDS and cancer on the rise, even relatively young people have friends who die. Faced with the impending death of someone we love, we might ask ourselves if we are up to becoming a real friend and companion to them during this final, difficult period of their life. If this is at some level appealing to you, but also frightening, why not read one or more of the excellent books now available on the role of the helper in these situations, and then decide. Grace and Grit,11 by Ken Wilber, is one such book; Steven Levine’s Healing into Life and Death12 is another. Also, many AIDS and cancer organizations have programs designed to help would-be helpers do a good job.
Getting involved with dying people that we haven’t been close to is another option. Many communities now have hospices where people with terminal illnesses can spend this last, difficult period of their life in a less-medicalized, more-homelike situation than a hospital. Some communities also provide at-home care for the terminally ill. Most of these programs welcome volunteers and have volunteer training programs.
Involvement with the dead can also make our own death more real to us. In countries like India, where open-air cremation is still practiced, it is possible to see dead people first hand. In North America, except for the occasional glimpse of a cosmetic-veneered “departed one,” death is kept far from the average person. There are no opportunities to practice traditional Buddhist charnel-ground meditations here, and opportunities for direct involvement with the dead are quite limited.
For a few people, however, opportunities do arise. Some years ago I had the good fortune to work awhile as a hospital orderly. I tended to the needs of terminally-ill male patients (among others) and on two occasions was attending patients just at the moment of death. It was then my task to bathe the corpse and take it to the morgue. These were very powerful experiences for me. One moment there was life; the next moment there wasn’t. The stark, direct nature of these personal experiences brought home the fragility of human life as nothing before ever had. I could not help being drawn into the mystery of it all.
On another occasion, I assisted at an autopsy, and the sense of mystery and wonder deepened. I recall the white-walled room, the bright lights overhead, the stainless steel table. I watched with riveted attention as the pathologist carried out his investigation. A human body lay before me, but this body was no longer a person. The life that once filled it was gone. It struck me that life was activity. Life was function. Again and again, my sense of sight had misled me. Vision had shown me a body and said, “Here is a person.” Yet the things that really mattered, the person’s thoughts and behavior, were functions. Before me now was a body, a pattern of atoms. But that more important pattern — that pattern of functions, that person — had vanished forever.
Afterward, I went for a walk down by the harbor. I looked at the tall pine and birch trees in front of Government House. They spoke to me of the oneness of life. From one perspective I was a person, a unique pattern of functions that would hang together for a while longer. Yet I also felt part of something more fundamental, more pervasive, more enduring. Wherever life could exist, life did exist, and I felt at-one with LIFE writ large. I felt at-one with the primal YES! of the universe.
11. Ken Wilber, GRACE AND GRIT: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber, Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1991.
12. Stephen Levine, HEALING INTO LIFE AND DEATH, New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1989.
The Lewis Thomas quote is from his article “Note from a Universe Watcher: ‘We are the Newest, the Youngest, and the Brightest thing Around'” that appeared in the New York Times of July 2, 1978. Copyright © 1978 By the New York Times Company. Reprinted by Permission.
The Gail Sheehy quote is from PASSAGES by Gail Sheehy. Copyright © 1974, 1976 by Gail Sheehy. Used by permission of Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.
Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:
Do you really believe you’re going to die? If so, what difference does that belief make in how you live? If not, or if you choose to ignore the prospect of your death, how does that belief affect how you live?
Consider yourself as “an experiment being run by the cosmic process.” How’s your experiment going? Is it a controlled or uncontrolled experiment? How much of a hand do you have in it yourself?
“What does it take to wake us up?”.
Have you had a “near-death experience”? If so, how did it alter you?
Have you had a near-life experience? If so, write about it.
What do you know of death?
Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.
(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)
Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.