End of Life (or Anytime) Issues: Questions We Don’t Ask Ourselves

Summary: The hard questions of life fall between the philosophical 1st-order questions (Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?) and the important everyday questions (Which car should I buy? Why is my relationship with my teenager so difficult?). In this post we list five of the ‘hard’ questions.

Note:  This post is a companion piece to my last post.  My husband, David, and I have written it together. 

Warning:  We expect a reaction to this post.  It will be so much better if you contribute to it.  See our request at the end.

(Dave)  When my father was in his eighties I asked him how he approached the end of life.  A bold, may be even insensitive question which he took well.  Jasper’s response was succinct, immensely practical, and somewhat fatalistic.

“I’ll hang on till sometime happens.”

(Dona) But years later, when we had our last conversation, he was more reflective, hopeful, and life affirming. He asked me, “Why have I lived so long?” His conclusion? To learn gratitude.

“The un-examined life is not worth living.”

Socrates

“I am a living paradox — deeply religious, yet not as convinced of my exact beliefs as I ought to be; wanting responsibility yet shirking it; loving the truth but often giving way to falsity. . . . I detest selfishness but see it in the mirror every day.”

Bill Clinton (written when a teenager)1

“So, teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

Psalm 90:12

(Dave)  For 25 years, Richard Leider interviewed more than 1,000 senior citizens, asking them to look back over their lives and talk about what they have learned. These seniors were successful in their jobs, having retired from leading companies after distinguished careers.

Leider writes, “Almost without exception, when these older people look back, they say the same things – things that are instructive and useful for the rest of us as we make decisions going forward in our lives.

First, they say that if they could live their lives over again, they would be more reflective. They got so caught up in the doing, they say, that they often lost sight of the meaning. Usually, it took a crisis for them to look at their lives in perspective and try to reestablish the context. Looking back, they wish they had stopped at regular intervals to look at the big picture.”

(Dona) Facing mortality or a deep crisis can set the stage for questioning the meaning of life, build depth in spiritual reflection and self-examination.

In a recent article for TIME, Jamie Ducharme reports that “the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have spurred a collective reckoning with our values, lifestyles and goals—a national existential crisis of sorts.”

Why don’t we stop and look at the big picture before we face a life-threatening event or realize we have well-exceeded a normal lifespan? Is it Leider’s seniors, who got too caught up in the doing to catch the meaning? Or, another reason, which I wrote about in an earlier post: ‘mythical immortality’; the belief that other people die, I don’t.

Whatever the reason: busyness, belief we will live forever, or simply just a lack of humility, we need to stop occasionally and ask ourselves those hard questions about what we are about. So, we (Dona and Dave) have drawn up a list of life questions, the questions we don’t ask ourselves but should. These questions fall between the philosophical 1st-order questions (Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?) and the important everyday questions (Which car should I buy? Why is my relationship with my teenager so difficult?).

Here are our top five, but we want to hear from you, too. 

  1. (Dona) First on my list would be the question my father-in-law asked me two weeks before he passed, “Why have I lived so long?” Notice, again, that he had moved from just “hanging on till something happens”, to asking, essentially, “What does God want you to know or experience before you die?” And, of course, this is a question for any age; the earlier the better.
  2. (Dave) What are you pretending not to know? I love this question posed to Jason Nazar. He writes, “This was perhaps the most powerful question I was ever asked (by my best friend). All possibilities open up when we stop deceiving ourselves.” When we get really serious about this question then we start asking really serious questions about the meaning and purpose of life. The corollary question is, “Are you doubting your doubts?” For example, if I doubt God exists, have I seriously examined that doubt or am I just using ‘doubt’ to sidestep or avoid the hard work of researching and facing the issue head-on?
  3. (Dave) Are there broken or unhealthy relationships (spouse, family, friends) that are within your power to mend? This is my least favorite question. Easy to answer, difficult to act on because of the risk. But many books written, and movies produced around this theme testify to its importance.
  4. (Dona) If you were dying would you worry about this? I devoted a post to this two years ago when I learned my cancer had spread. When I thought I would live forever everything mattered; from the inanest to the most profound. There’s little wiggle room to separate out the important opinions and worries from the trite.
  5. (Dave) If you were not scared what would you do? (Another question from Jason Nazar.) “Use the rocking chair test. What would your 90-year-old self, looking back on your own life, advise you to do in the moment?” We are not talking about bungee-cord diving here. (Although if you want a little levity then check out the video below of fearless grandmas taking great risk.) Referring back to Leider’s interview with seniors, he found they would, first, be more reflective, and second, take more risks. My father told me late in life that he wished he had not been afraid to take risks in pursuing some of his entrepreneurial ideas….in other words, spend more time at the office, not less. I am so grateful for all the time my dad spent away from the office and with me when I was young, but I got the point. Is there an opportunity out there waiting that requires effort and risk to pursue? I have a close friend who at 72 spends much of his waking hours developing entrepreneurial programs at a charity providing work readiness training in under-served neighborhoods. The effort great and there is risk, but the reward is great. That is life.

Grandmas taking risks!!

Okay, it is your turn. Please share some of your life reflection questions in the comment bar or send me an email donaeley907@gmail.com .

Footnote 1: Bill Clinton wrote this reflection for an essay in high school. Regardless of what you think of the 42nd president, this is a pretty unflinching look in the mirror for a teenager.

End of Life Issues: Gratitude

Introduction:

My father-in-law, Jasper, was not known to be disclosing about feelings or reflections, so it came as a surprise when he asked me a question two weeks before his death at 91 years old. In doing so, he showed a side of himself that inadvertently showed a side of me. That was 12 years ago this month, and my husband, David, and I have been talking about the conversation I had with his father ever since.

In January 2009, Jasper was then the oldest man living in his rural village in North Carolina.  He was not dying or even ill when we sat together companionably in the sunroom of his home.  Without preamble he asked me, “Dona, why do you think God has me living so long?” 

I did not answer, thinking the question was rhetorical or a springboard to talk about what he was thinking. I was wrong.

“Dona, why have I lived so long?”

A question which he expected me to have an answer.  But who can ever know such a thing? I sent up a quick silent prayer that I might at least say something meaningful. But I was unprepared and therefore flustered by the significance of the moment.  I stammered out something about his wife needing his companionship and presence because she loved him.  Though true, I did not feel good about my answer.

After a pause, my father-in-law said, “I have a lot to be thankful for. I have been blessed.  I just wish that I had been more thankful earlier in my life.”

It was then and only then that I had an answer to offer.

“Maybe God has been waiting for you to come to that realization; to be thankful to him for what He has given you throughout your life.”

That was our last conversation.

My father-in-law was a very responsible and accomplished man.  If I can be forgiven for putting words in his mouth, he might say that he got caught up in the doings of business, family, civic responsibilities, and whatever else needed to be done to the extent that he neglected looking back and appreciating the gifts that came his way.

My neglect of gratitude was not so different from my father-in-law’s.  As I wrote in an earlier post (I like the New Metastatic Me), I once acted as if I would live forever.  Given that I was going to live forever, issues small and big needed to be dealt with urgently, intentionally, and continually until there was resolution. Too much chronic doing and too much worrying about what else needed to be done was set in motion by an unconscious attitude that things needed to go my way to make this long, long, long life I was destined for enjoyable and to my liking. A spirit of gratitude was being squeezed out of my life from a lack of reflection.

Why don’t we stop and be grateful before we face a life-threatening event (me) or realize we have well-exceeded a normal lifespan (my father-n-law)? 

What is Gratitude?

Harvard Medical School publishes a very layperson-accessible newsletter on current research in human health and wellbeing.  In Praise of Gratitude, Harvard Health researchers noted that gratitude is more than feeling thankful: it is a deeper appreciation for someone (or something) that produces longer lasting positivity.  More specifically and functionally, gratitude is:

Gratitude is “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier or thinking they can’t feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.”

Drawing from that helpful description, my working definition of gratitude is:

The act of recognizing and reflecting on a gift one does not deserve. 

And finally, the root word of gratitude is gratia (Latin) or grace.  The Bible describes grace as the unmerited favor of God towards you and me.

The Practice of Gratitude

Gratitude is to be deliberately practiced and cultivated. 

Within the Harvard Health article there are suggestions for the practice of gratitude.  I recommend you read them.  But within their list is an omission. Who should I be thanking when there is nobody to thank?

I can write my thank you notes to people who have blessed me or simply thank them in person but who do I thank for peace or joy or love? Who do I thank when I am “forest bathing” and the natural environment overwhelms me with its beauty?

I am thankful for the many who have blessed me and to them words of gratitude are owed but there are so many benefits I receive that are not people initiated. Who do I thank for the seasons’ beautiful effects on nature?  Who do I directly thank for warm showers, the fresh beautiful faces of children, the convenience and comfort that my resources afford me, or family and friends that delight me? Unless there is a cosmic personally invested Creator whose thumbprint is behind all the small and great wonders of existence then the thankfulness or gratitude loses its mystery, awe and lifegiving power. I feel more alive when I am thanking God. God is eternal and somehow my thankfulness is linked to eternity and therefore takes on a more powerful life-giving meaning.

In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

Get out and look at the wonder of creation. Be in awe and praise the cosmic Creator whose penchant for beauty is beyond comparison. Take time to be present to notice what delights you and benefits you and then thank God for his provision of great and small things . It will begin to transform you into a more loving and generous person. It will bring you closer to the Almighty One that loves you and rejoices when you are thanking him for in thanking Him that we begin to paradoxically release our grip on the things of this world and begin to set our affections on transcendent things which in turn blesses everyone.

In conclusion:

Thank you, dear readers and friends who have shown me extraordinary kindness and love in reading my posts, commenting, or reaching out with texts, letters, and calls.