It used to be that death almost never crossed my narrow little mind except to make a point or a joke (sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference) in conversation. Now I think about it, quite literally, every hour of the day.
3 months ago I started a counseling internship at a cancer treatment hospital. When interviewing for positions the cancer hospital was my only choice. I didn’t have a backup plan. I only wanted to work at the hospital because I knew that inside its halls lived the sort of reality I had only a pale acquaintance with.
Our hospital is one that treats mostly stage 3 and 4 cancer patients. We have a lot of success stories. But by “success” I don’t mean that we have a lot of survivors. I mean that we have a lot of people coming to grips with the reality of their own mortality; husbands, wives, parents, children, standing at the bedside of their loved ones saying their final goodbyes, discovering love for each other in ways they had never experienced; people dying well, that is, people dying with time to reckon with life.
How is any sort of dying a success? Well, it’s not if your ‘immortality project’ is firmly entrenched in your conscious with the help of a myriad of smokescreens and delusions necessary to make one forget – or at least defer – the reality of creatureliness. Unless the veil is torn away death can be terrifying, and for that reason taboo.
Truth is, at some point we all develop a fetish for falsity which corresponds to reality-blindness – the haunt of all neuroses.
It occurred to me early on in my internship that on the outside of the hospital walls death is not favorite subject with most people. It used to be that when someone in the family was sick or dying the family took them in and grieved with them, stayed with them through the pain and sorrow till the very end. Death was a part of everyday life for many in our not too distant past. Today if someone is ill, old, or dying we make them disappear into a nursing home or hospice center so as to not become too familiar with the reality of death; someone dying next to you is a terrifying reminder that you might be next.
And you will be.
As a Christian I imagined that I was psychologically above death, that I had successfully transcended death through my belief in the afterlife. This delusion was tested to its limits a few weeks ago. For a 3 week period I was convinced I had colon cancer. It’s hard not to laugh at the idea now, but only because I had a colonoscopy to verify that I was in the clear. To make a long story short, my family has a strong history of colon cancer. My grandfather had it at my age and died at 44, so I had ample reason for concern. Besides that, I had daily reminders that guys my age, and younger, died of colon cancer all the time. It’s not some ‘old guy’s disease,’ as many imagine.
At any rate, I experienced what it felt like to walk around, day after day, with the idea that I was soon to leave my wife, children, friends, family, and unfulfilled dreams behind. It’s a feeling that is truly indescribable so I won’t butcher the experience by trying to be an artist about it. It was terrible.
I learned some things about myself during that period that deeply disappointed me. For starters, I was appalled that my faith was not able to lift me above the chaos of fear and plant me in some sort of ethereal wonderland of expectation – like the Apostle Paul who welcomed death as personal gain, to be present with the Lord. I had that feeling, but only in brief flashes. For the most part I was a total wreck internally.
I knew things were bad when I was in a session with a lady who 30 minutes previous had received the results of a scan which told her she had terminal cancer. As she and her husband sat weeping my empathy went from ‘healthy’ to ‘panic’ in just a few seconds time. As a counselor you need the ability to experience emotion with a patient on a deep level (i.e. empathy), but not become completely overwhelmed by it. Well, I completely failed that day.
If it were not for a strict regimen of morning prayer I would not have made it. Even though my faith did not transplant me, as described above, it did keep my head above water just long enough to experience perhaps the most profound internal ass-kicking I’ve ever endured. And I wouldn’t take back the experience for anything!
When people talk about total despair, I get it. I now know anxiety on a level I never conceived of before. I believe God allowed me to coast along the edge of death-reality just long enough to cure me of the smokescreens and delusions I fed myself in hope of denying my creatureliness (a subconscious denial).
The truth is that the dying are not found in hospitals and hospices. Those are just places inhabited by people keenly aware of their mortality. Drive down the street, take note of everyone around you, those are the are dying – everyone. Try as they might to keep busy with work, school, sports, politics, whatever, to protect their conscious from the terror of reality, reality eventually has its way with all illusions. A man-made immortality project is the ultimate illusion.
Those who are ‘keenly aware’ of mortality actually live with one of the greatest gifts a person can have: the gift of being able to decipher meaning in existence – especially in the hard to reach places of pain, suffering, loneliness, and anxiety – as opposed to the sort of sham existence build on distractions and pretense which merely sedate life’s disappointments common to all.
We all live in the land of the dying, but that doesn’t mean we live in a nightmare. It means we live for a season. Every season is loaded with meaning, in many ways precisely because it is only for a season.
When the season ends I hope to meet death with open arms.
Thanks for reading.