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Lessons of the Angel of Death

Lesson 6 - Existential Questioning

During our third year, one of the things that puzzled me was why it seemed that I was in a place that seemed so different from where everybody else was? Why did I feel like such an outcast, such an "Other?" Pam and I are feeling very socially isolated. It's hard to start new friendships. It's hard to get people willing to invest in a relationship with you when they know your limited future and the challenges coming down the road for you. And I began to resent that. And I began to wonder what is the relationship between being terminal and being mortal? An interesting question. What I figured out was that the only difference between being terminal and being mortal was the time frame. Existentially they are the same damn situation. Yet I was living in a society of people who denied that reality, a society made up of people who considered themselves to be temporarily immortal, not vulnerable in the same way I was to death, and yet they were and you all are. You're "mortal" to my "terminal," and it's not all that different. As a matter of fact, I discovered as I wrote the third meditation "Are You Still Terminal?" that I wanted to be terminal for the rest of my life, no matter what happened with my cancer, because I thought living in that kind of relationship with death had given my life a value that it never had before. There is actually a very interesting literature that explores what life would be like if humans were immortal. Mortality is actually a critical aspect of what makes us human. To be human requires the presence of death in our lives. As a matter of fact, death as a number of philosophers have argued is what gives life its punch. It is what many have called the wellspring of life; this business of living life up against the clock. That's what gives life the force that it needs, otherwise there would be nothing that compelled us, that brought us to action. So the metaphor that I began using was the metaphor of death as sugar. Think about death as what adds sweetness to your life.

That metaphor didn't just drop into my head. It was placed there through conversations with people who were hospice patients, who shared with me that the time that they had as hospice patients was some of the sweetest time that they had ever known. They told me that they were more open to love as dying people than they had ever been before, and they were more capable of love than they had ever been before, and that it was death that made it possible for them to know that and experience that. I had grown comfortable with the metaphor of having death on my shoulder; death as a companion on this journey called life. And, yet, what I discovered, the more I thought about it is no, death is right here inside of us. Death is the skeleton that is there in you, as much a part of you as your flesh. That's the relationship that we need to cultivate. We need to aspire to a relationship that would allow us to touch the skeleton we are becoming and to acknowledge and embrace that skeleton in each other.