Thursday, October 1, 2009

Death and Life

This is an excerpt from my journal on September 15, three days before I was released from North Memorial Hospital:

"It's largely about mortality. That's the best and the hardest part of all this. I have been living face to face for eleven days with the very real prospect that I may be in the final countdown of my life. Especially early on there were a few moments when I thought the meter had less than five minutes on it. And so I have been prompted to think, and to think, and to think, in tracks that have been a little more abstract before.

One day soon I will need to turn from facing my death and instead face my life again, or else this will all be morbid and meaningless."

I've been pondering these words -- especially the last paragraph -- a lot lately. These days I'm turning from thoughts of death narrowly missed toward thoughts of life -- schedules, priorities, relationships, decisions. In the face of death you have very few decisions to make. Basically you have one: To trust or not to trust.

In the face of life, however, you have a ton of decisions to make. Should we can the tomatoes or freeze them? Spaghetti sauce or salsa? Go to the store or scrape by on the ingredients in the pantry and the fridge and the garden? And the list goes on. You know the litany of decisions very well. It's what keeps most of our days turning faster and faster.

It strikes me, though, that without facing my death I cannot genuinely face my life. I don't want to dwell on it too much, but so often as a people we avoid death. We dress it up in nice clothes, shut it away in polite "funeral homes," play video games that glorify it without ever touching its reality.

I met a remarkable young nursing student in my last days at North Memorial. She had gone into nursing school after a solid career in advertising. What motivated her? Her mother's death, with great dignity and care, in a hospice setting. She told me that she watched those nurses care for her mother and wanted to be like them. How often have you heard some variation on this theme? It is in the face of death that we come to some sense of the meaning of our lives. We need the contrast to make the call of God come clear.

Ursula K. LeGuin, in her Earthsea trilogy, puts it this way:

Only in silence the word
Only in darkness the light
Only in dying, life
Bright the hawk's flight on the empty sky

We need the contrast. We desperately need an awareness of death if we are to value our lives. This is one reason I hunt and delight in eating meat -- I cherish the awareness of what my life costs. (Plus venison stew is just sooo good ...) Too often we live in a denial of death -- our own, and others'. We'd like to pretend that our lives don't cost anything. We'd like to keep the two starkly separate -- life, on one hand, and death somewhere in the background until it's absolutely necessary to face it.

But contrast requires that these two be placed starkly against one another. Jesus understood this. He said, on the one hand, "I came that you might have life, life abundant." On the other hand, he said "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it." The paradox, the truth, is that in losing my life I have found it anew. In facing my own death I have rediscovered life with new depth and meaning.

Not that I have it all figured out. Are you kidding? But I know something, and that is this. As I said a minute ago, in the face of death there is only one question: In this moment, will I trust, or not? In the face of life, there is also only one question. And it is the same question.


  1. It's the perfect question! Thanks

  2. Your blog entry reminds me of the statement, "Live each day as if it were your last". How much differently would I live? I think I would ALOT in the small things. In the things that would have nothing to do with what the world calls successful. Yet I write this and get caught up in the worldly stuff.
    Thanks for sharing, great stuff to "ponder" hence, the name of your blog ;)