Waking Up to What Really Matters

Fear for our lives prompts us to see the world anew. A heart muscle showing signs of fatigue, or a tumor refusing to stay contained, brings us face-to-face with all that is transcendent.
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Two veils separate us from the divine -- health and security.
-Sufi saying

I once asked a particularly warm-hearted oncologist how he could stand to have so many of his patients die, yet remain so open in his relationships. He revealed that every year he goes into remote areas of Alaska where grizzly bears preside, armed with only a camera. "If a hungry bear finds me out there, the simple fact is that I am lower on the food chain. Each time, I have to get through being afraid. Something comes over me -- a sort of recognition -- and then I'm good for another year."

There is no difference between this doctor's exposure to death in the woods and that which threatens his patients. He does all he can for them, but it is in the nature of things that a bear or a tumor will take a life from time to time. Each of us at some point must enter that vulnerability. If we accede to it, rather than recoil, the experience of helplessness will deliver us directly to the sacred.

Fear for our lives prompts us to see the world anew. A heart muscle showing signs of fatigue, or a tumor refusing to stay contained, brings us face-to-face with all that is transcendent. Power, money, individual aspiration -- these recede as our relationships shine with primacy. Many hospice patients I have assisted over the years have taken on a look of such clarity that being in their presence has jolted me into an expanded consciousness.

The challenge is to let what we glimpse at such times mark the rest of our lives. We have to remember what mattered to us then and what did not, rather than to slip right back into unknowing as soon as we are able to resume our regular doings. I always tell people who are afraid to visit a dying friend or relative, "Go sit there and let the experience be what it is. You will live so much better afterwards."

The fundamental questions about life suddenly becomes less abstract. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. Our yearning for something overarching like the divine to explain what is going on gets more intense. The profane loses its sway with us, as we seek to become conversant with larger truths. Even if not religiously inclined, we seek a context for both our misery and the times of exhilaration we have known. We are drawn into a larger story.

Community matters to us like never before. Awareness of our vulnerability arouses the basic hope that we will be able to count on kindness during our time of need. With this in mind, we re-evaluate our relationships. Who would take care of me if I got sick? We are rattled into realizing that networks of giving and receiving are more important than connections that add to our social or financial status. From the vantage point of the sickbed, having built a history of reciprocity is worth so much more than invitations to fancy parties or extensive stock holdings.

As soon as this consciousness is awakened, we get better at refusing to waste our time. Why engage in small talk when an expansive conversation can refresh our perceptions? Why stay emotionally hidden when we have yearned to be known more fully? Why defer exploring our dreams a moment longer? If this is our one and only life, then it is time to break free of what constrains us, to say and do what we must. Time running out makes us braver.

Comparing ourselves to others loses its sway. Rather than wondering if we are good enough at something or how much we measure up to others' standards, we are ready finally to speak in the distinctive voice of our own spirit. The self-doubt of youth is exchanged for a finer audacity, once our proximity to death becomes harder to deny. This urgency boosts both our creative impulses and our capacity for self-expression.

Joy itself becomes more visceral when our transience becomes more vivid. So long as we continue to be caught up in the trivial, rushing around with little attention to our surroundings, we miss many of life's available delights. The slow walks I took with my mother-in-law during the last weeks of her life consisted of our discussing every flower, each garden decoration, the features of all the porches and front doors I had not noticed in hundreds of previous walks around the neighborhood. To this day, I take walks differently and really behold what is there to be seen.

At long last, we recognize the vast number of things we will never be able to understand, becoming more comfortable with uncertainty. A 72-year-old woman told me that she had become less religious and more spiritual as she had gotten older. She thinks about the meaning of life and death several times a day, but not in an anxious way. She is alert, vivacious and grateful. This is a wonderful way to live.

Adapted from: "Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older," Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.