Death has changed throughout the years. Well, I guess death hasn’t changed – dying today causes someone to be just as dead as it did a thousand years ago. What would be a more accurate statement would be – human reaction to death has changed throughout the years. For instance, when a person was dying in the Middle Ages, they said their goodbyes, gave away their furniture, and just stopped breathing. Dying was really a “non-event.” This “non-event” was often witnessed by friends and family, who, at the moment of death, absconded with anything of value. “So sorry to see Aunt Beatrice go. Oh well, you can have the washer & dryer, but I get that dining room set!” Later, these same people may gather to either celebrate or deride the person’s life. “It’s unfortunate that Uncle Rufus is gone, but he was kind of a cranky old man anyway.” It all seems quite heartless. Today, although we may not fight over furniture, or gather at a later date to talk about how despicable the departed were in life, we do something worse.
We layer death with a multitude of screens, hoping to hide the elephant in the room. We deny death. We almost ignore its inevitability. Unfortunately, the delusion is easily shattered by words, events, and thoughts that, despite our best efforts to the contrary, reassert the role of death in life. Today, instead of welcoming death as the greatest of all life coaches, we dread its appearance as if it is an embarrassing relative at a family gathering.
Theologian Thomas Merton described the process of his mothers’ death. Mrs. Merton wrote her son a goodbye letter, rather than risking the possibility of scarring him for life by actually seeing her dying in the hospital. Our attitudes today haven’t changed much since Merton’s experience in the early 1900’s. The Buddha said; “Just like the elephant leaves the largest footprint in the forest, so does death when it comes to living.” For the past 12 years I have served as full-time clergy and have stood at the side of many hospital beds holding the hand of young and old alike as they waited for their journey in this life to end and their journey in the next life to begin. I have operated in and still reside in the elephant’s footprint. What I’ve learned in these bedside encounters are lessons about living that have hit me with great force.
The linguist, Korzybski said; “The map is not the territory.” Arriving at the territory of personal excellence may not require lectures, workshops, or even books written by great motivational authors. The map I have used involves people who invite me into their lives as they approach death. As I watch their transformation and growth, I feel as if I am experiencing the peeling away of layers of an onion. When someone knows they have little time to live, things that were once thought important – roles, egos, belongings, even societal niceties – are quickly shed. What’s left is the reality, or even the true consciousness of what is truly important in life. These people generally begin to convey an honesty that is often painful to witness. But, from the words and actions of these people comes wisdom that cuts to the core of what it means to be human.
After sitting with people ranging in age from 3 months to 85 years, I’m beginning to understand how to transform my life from one that has been adequate, to one that is genuinely fulfilling. One universal maxim I’ve learned is – The way we choose to live, usually becomes the way we are forced to die.
If you want an easier death, create a better life. It’s a causative proposition that is unfortunately often misinterpreted as “being glib.” But its relevance lies in its simplicity and is evidenced over and over throughout human history. There are general guidelines that I’ve gleaned from my experiences that can become a blueprint for personal excellence. Below are six of the many I’ve learned.
1) Ask for Forgiveness.
Guilt is an anchor. It weighs you down and renders progress nearly impossible. Every one of us has wronged someone in our lives. Asking for forgiveness for thoughtless acts or words can be soothing, if not curative, even if forgiveness is withheld.
The Bible says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” It’s against the very nature of our humanity to agree with that statement – until you live it. Giving is infectious. Giving feels good. Giving should be unconditional with no expectation of reciprocity: you give because it’s the right thing to do. Doing something for someone when you know they will never be able to do it back for you can be euphoric.
3) Communicate with your heart.
We all have things in our heart that will never be communicated. Why? Because we think we have all the time in the world. Additionally, so little of our communication is actually done with words. It was only when I served people who were dying that I realized the use of words and language often get in the way of the emotions we wish to convey. Gifts and cards and smiles and hugs say volumes.
4) Show Compassion.
Not everyone can be as perfect as you. Be patient. Slow down a bit and appreciate the process. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Roll down your window and give some of your spare change without judging what they will do with your money. Buy something and give it to Toys for Tots or Coats for Kids. You don’t have to be Warren Buffet or Bill Gates to make a profound impact on someone’s life. I’ve come to realize that a great measure of compassion is the effect it has on the person experiencing it, not the largeness of the effort.
5) Do what matters.
Tie up some lose ends. I’ve never underestimated the power of positive thinking, but I found while hoping that life will get better, people often neglect improving their present situation. Instead of tying up loose ends near death, people often wait, hoping for a miracle to happen and so many times they do, but sometimes that miracle doesn’t come. “Hoping” for the best in the future often results in not doing something meaningful in the present.
I think it’s important to begin and end with forgiveness. You have sought forgiveness, now it’s time to extend it. Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and thinking it will hurt the other person. So often we hold on to an emotional pain as if its continuation validates the injustice we experienced. The Tibetans have a saying, “You can throw hot coals at your enemies, but you’ll burn your hands.” Forgiveness does not mean that an act of cruelty was justified. Rather, it implies an understanding of why it occurred and allows one to move on positively with their life and death. It feels good to forgive. It is freeing to forgive. In fact, it is empowering to forgive. I am not going to be held hostage by injustice, I choose to forgive.
Sitting with someone who is transitioning from this life to the next is enlightening. When you know your time is short you relieve yourself of the excuses that hold you back from saying the things you should say and doing the things you should do. You have nothing to lose. What if you lived your life like that now? Life really is short. Yesterday I was my kids’ age and tomorrow I will be my parents’ age. Life is like a vapor. Why not start taking some steps to dying well by living well. Welcome death as the greatest of all life coaches. Seek forgiveness, give, communicate with your heart, show compassion, do what matters & forgive – you will be glad you did. Your best life begins today.