Tag Archives: end of life

Wisdom of the Ages?

Some readers have asked that we take a look at various religions to see what wisdom they have to offer with respect to death and dying. It’s a tall order, but we’ve been building up our library in that department.How Different Religions

Recently, I’ve been reading How Different Religions View Death and Afterlife, second edition (1998), edited by Christopher Jay Johnson and Marsha G. McGee. The book appears to be out of print, but used copies are readily available online for a few dollars. The editors have pulled together experts on various Christian denominations and world religions, including Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, to summarize their history and main tenets and delve into their positions on death and the afterlife. The chapters also examine practices with respect to disposal of the body and mourning.

The book is informative, but I have to say that when it comes to theology and doctrine, I didn’t find a great deal here that would offer insight to a modern person. The exception might be found in the chapter on Unitarian Universalism, in which George N. Marshall states that “Unitarian Universalists accept a scientific view of life and see life as lived in the here and now rather than in the hereafter.”

Concepts offered in other chapters, such as paradise, heaven, hell, reincarnation, purgatory, limbo, and bodily resurrection on the eve of the thousand year reign of Jesus, are not something that many of us, in this day and age, are going to able to accept. If we believe in the soul, or that we’ll be with our loved ones when we die, it’s likely to be only in a metaphorical sense.

Some of the contributors recognize the problem. William L. Hendricks, the late Southern Baptist theologian, after taking a look at the belief that Christians will escape death through resurrection in the end times, writes that:

“It is my experience that geriatric persons do not take too seriously the apocalyptic escape clause. Aging persons, by and large, are not planning on getting out of life alive. Via the routes of pain and problems, many have come with firm faith to look upon death as a friend and even a welcome relief.” Hendricks suggests that it is often the “young and over-achieving middle-aged” who are most concerned with “getting out without death.”

The flashes of understanding that bedeck this book may be its most valuable aspect. We learn, for example, that according to Quaker William Penn,

“This is the comfort of Friends, that though they may be said to Die,
Yet their friendship and Society, are, in the best Sense, ever present,
Because immortal.”

Amen to that.

Some of the practices described in this book for the time of dying and after death also have great appeal. Among Buddhists, “while the dying person can still relate to others, family members and friends are advised to bid the person farewell. Ideally this is done without tears or drama, so as not to cause excessive regret or longing in the dying person.” Among Jews, “The saying of the Kaddish prayer is an essential part of the mourning experience. This famous prayer is distinctive because of its rhythmic cadence and its use of Aramaic language instead of the customary Hebrew…. In practice, the prayer amounts to a virtual petition or intercession for the welfare of the deceased.”

I wish Johnson and McGee had persuaded an Episcopalian to contribute to their volume. What could be more beautiful than these words from the Episcopal burial service?

“You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we
return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying,
‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down
to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia,
alleluia, alleluia.”

The Worm at the Core — A Book Worth Reading

I’ve been reading The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life (New York, Random House. 2015) by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszcynski. It’s a book I strongly recommend for book clubs, church discussion groups, and anyone trying to get a handle on the whole death thing.Worm at the Core

The authors are psychologists who, inspired by cultural anthropologist Ernst Becker, have been working together for more than thirty years to develop a theory of  the “terror management” that, they argue, each of us must employ in order to survive, What is the source of our terror? The gnawing fear of death that we acquire as children and that lasts throughout our lives.

Like all living creatures, humans will do just about anything to stay alive, but evolution has made us self-aware. With that awareness comes the knowledge that we will ultimately die no matter what we do — hence, our terror. If humankind had let that terror overwhelm us, we would have been at an evolutionary dead end, unable to hunt for food or take risks and launch new ventures for fear we might be killed.

One of our coping tools has been religion, and particularly a belief in the soul. This has helped us convince ourselves that in some sense we will never die. Another tactic is to identify with institutions that seem immortal, such as the church, the state, or our alma mater. We research our ancestry and cultivate strong families to give ourselves a sense that we are part of an undying chain of being. We go to great lengths to appear youthful for as long as we possibly can. We seek wealth so that others will respect us as particularly important people. We engage in risky but enjoyable or exhilarating behavior to distract our minds from death. On the more positive side, we play our expected roles as dutiful children, good parents, and wise elders in order to affirm to ourselves that we are valued members of an ongoing society.

Self esteem is our most important coping tool, and we try constantly to strengthen it to keep that gnawing terror at bay. Some of us seek literal immortality by believing in an afterlife. Others settle for symbolic immortality through our achievements, as well as through the fond memories we hope others will hold of us and the good reputation that we try to leave behind.

The authors don’t conclude from all of this that life and striving are meaningless. Far from it. Instead, they encourage us to do those things that can stave off the terror and help us get through life. It’s a good thing to build self esteem in positive ways, such as giving to charity. It’s OK to seek transcendence by expressing ourselves in art, participating in rituals, or enjoying nature.

There is a danger in our coping mechanisms, however. In seeking transcendence by identifying with our culture and our nation, we can be tempted to exert our will over other people and other cultures. In order to affirm ourselves and our ways of doing things, we may try to humiliate those who don’t think and act as we do. (Anyone reminded of Germany and Greece here?)  If we can force millions to believe and act as we do, then we must be right. Our coping mechanisms can themselves lead to death, as the martyrs of our time confirm through their suicide slaughters. In fact, in a world with thousands of nuclear weapons, coping mechanisms gone awry could threaten the survival of our species. But we are a species uniquely skilled at finding solutions to problems, and the authors conclude on the hopeful note that since we now understand this one, we can solve it.

Read this book. It’s bound to make you think. And if you read it as part of a group, it’s bound to provoke discussion.

Here are just three favorite quotes.

“Forced to choose, most would agree with Woody Allen that literal immortality is preferable: ‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

“Being ‘comfortably numb,’ from drugs and alcohol is a great way to banish death thoughts from consciousness, but not so great for staying healthy and alive.”

“Come to terms with death. Really grasp that being mortal, while terrifying, can also make our lives sublime by infusing us with courage, compassion, and concern for future generations. Seek enduring significance through your own combination of meanings and values, social connections, spirituality, personal accomplishments, identifications with nature, and momentary experiences of transcendence. Promote cultural worldviews that provide such paths while encouraging tolerance of uncertainty and others who harbor different beliefs.”

Dr. Sacks Opts for Treatment

Oliver Sacks, eminent physician and best-selling author, has opted for an advanced treatment, known as “hepatic artery embolization,” to deal with the liver cancer that has stricken him at age 81.

Oliver Sacks.   © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

Oliver Sacks. © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Sacks describes the side effects that ensued from this treatment with eye-opening clarity. “I felt awful,” he reports, “If I had to feel like this from now on, I kept thinking, I would sooner be dead.”

Yet, after ten days Sacks suddenly began to feel well again. Indeed, at time of writing, he was experiencing feelings of exuberance and gratitude, even though he knew the time for this would be brief. His hope was only that “I may feel really well for three or four months …”

Seniors trying to develop a practical and realistic approach to the end of life face an almost insoluble conundrum. Like Dr. Gawande, we are concerned about the excessive, expensive, painful and uncertain treatments modern medicine can push us toward — treatments that can deprive us of a death with dignity. On the other hand, which of us would not opt for a treatment that could make us feel really well again, and give us a few more months of life? And how can we possibly know whether a particular treatment is worth trying?

There is no certain answer to this last question, but we can try to keep ourselves informed and learn from the experiences of others. Long before we become ill, we can try to find a primary care physician we trust for honest answers. We can talk with family and closest friends about our end of life wishes, and look to them for counsel and support when the time comes. Then we can only hope that like Dr. Sacks, we will make the right decision for ourselves.