Death Comes to All Things

Death Comes to All Things January 1, 2017

Live Large in the New Year!

I usually try to understand fully the different forms of diversity in our society, and to encourage people to understand each other’s differences. In this blog I’m going to explain one reason I do this.

More that 30 years ago I found a tumor in my left arm pit. My father had died of cancer when I was young, and for a couple of days all I thought about was what it would be like to die young, with an infant daughter and not having even been ordained. Then my doctor examined me and explained that it was a harmless fatty tumor that might or might not grow. I quite worrying about it but back in the background was that early confrontation with death.

About 20 years ago I was diagnosed with something much more serious: a malignant melanoma. The doctors made no effort at reassuring me. Instead they gave me mountains of information about various stages of melanoma, chemo-therapy, and so on. Fortunately after removing a chunk of my left calf they believed they got it all. I still had to undergo a regular regimen of doctors visits and various tests to insure that they had.

This experience made me think about death a lot more, as will happen when you face it every 3 months in the form of an examination of your whole body.

And I remembered and began to practice something I learned from an old Anglican priest. He suggested that we should each, on preparing for a long journey, treat it as if we were going to die. Make sure you forgive anyone who needs forgiving. Seek forgiveness from those whom you’ve wronged. Tell people you love that you love them. And take care of your estate. Make sure that you have left an up-to-date will, that you’ve named an executor, and that you’ve left any necessary instructions for your funeral.

And take care of your spiritual and emotional estate as well. Clean up any emotional messes you’ve left outstanding. Give some thought to what you might say when you meet God.

I was undertaking this exercise not only with the threat of cancer hanging over me, but as I was starting to teach world religions, and thus explaining to 18 and 19 year olds about Buddhism and its profound analysis of the illusory nature of our concepts of human personhood, and how these lead inevitably to suffering. Which fit nicely with all I learned doing a PhD in history – which is really the study of how things live and inevitably die.

And so I came to accept that I would die. That it was inevitable and universal. Confucius taught that as you get older you should visit your own coffin more often – to become familiar with what will become your home.

Thus three years ago, when I fell suddenly and ill in a foreign country and was facing emergency surgery from an obstructed bowel, those exercises made it somewhat easier. With the pain eased by oxicodon I had about three hours to run through Father Roger’s advice to those going on a journey, do due diligence with regard to my medical treatment, and go peacefully into having part of my guts removed.

Since then (my recovery was remarkably easy) I’ve also had a little heart issue and a pulmonary embolism. Also no big deal but gentle reminders nonetheless.

Reminders that we will all die. Not just personally either. History teaches us that everything dies. Ethnic groups die out (met a Hittite lately?), nation-states die, (alas dear Prussia, I knew you well), ideologies die (hard), as do political systems (also hard) and deeply held cultural values. Everything that has come into existence will pass out of existence in time. Good heavens, even God incarnate died.

I hope that awareness of death has made me more aware of the world around me, for it is that larger world rather than the future where life is found. And I hope an awareness of death has made me more compassionate toward those who share a common fate. It has taught me that we can enrich our own lives and ease the lives of others by seeking to understand their experience of living.

We cannot live longer lives, but we can live larger lives. We cannot extend the narrow stream that is our life but we can embrace the vast river of other lives. Since our little boats will someday sink on even the smallest pond we should set sail on deeper seas. For in the end only the widest possible embrace of our human family casts off the embrace of death.

Happy New Year! Live Large.

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