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 something 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.

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

  1. Joyce N January 29, 2021 / 11:36 am

    Thank you, Dona and Dave, for the loving, wise and thought-provoking post. You both are such blessings to me and so many others. I don’t have specific life reflection questions. I do think about grace, peace, truth, love, beauty, life. I especially like the question “what are you pretending not to know.” When I’m upset I do ask myself – “will this matter 20 years from now?” – similar to the “If you were dying would you worry about this?” question. Thank you for pointing us in the direction of what is truly important.

  2. Anonymous January 29, 2021 / 11:48 am

    I would say a big question would be:…but does that really matter? Insert anything,relationship, situation, worry, anxiety-maker into that sentence. ” But, does it REALLY matter?

    • donaeley January 30, 2021 / 10:30 am

      Great question. This is related to a question Mariann and Joyce posed, “Will it matter in 10-20 years?” And, it seems these questions could have two sides: (1) In 10 years will I laugh about this or even remember it? Or, (2) in 10 years will there be any residual to that thing that I am putting so much of my energy, worry into now? For (2), pouring energy into a relationship could certainly last 10 years…some of my material obsessions, certainly not.

  3. Nikki Sullivan January 29, 2021 / 6:11 pm

    First, thank you Dona and David for your openness in sharing personal reflections. I think it gives many of us encouragement in our own challenges with faith and hope in this life’s journey!
    I overindulge in reflection! As Peter would say
    ‘You’re overthinking it’…..again!
    But one thing I have asked these past 3 years is ‘why could I share my faith repeatedly and so authentically following a crisis’. And then, poof, I’m back to my reluctant self.

    • donaeley January 30, 2021 / 10:22 am

      Thanks, Nikki. Few people would not be able to identify with that sentiment.

  4. Kirstie Dye January 30, 2021 / 10:15 am

    Excellent, of course…including the comments I have just read. I am writing to thank you! For me some of these BIG questions do enter my mind with surprising frequency; it is finding satisfying answers that is difficult.

    A question that challenged me growing up with my Christ centered parents: How are you spending your time? Inference often was to consider others before self. (Note my dad died at 52 after given a life expectancy of 25 and my mom died shortly after him from cancer experience.) Some needed humor here- just been encouraged to put my device down and make pancakes for breakfast!

    • donaeley January 30, 2021 / 10:19 am

      To make pancakes or waffles? That’s a question that leads to the life-giving, in-the-moment! Nothing wrong with being in the moment! Use real maple syrup.

  5. Anonymous January 30, 2021 / 10:50 am

    And it is always real maple syrup! Enjoyed with some coffee, Diet Coke, conversation re current Economist and CT. Quiet and rejuvenating moment. Now will carry the BIG thoughts in my mind as the mundane of Saturday traditional chores occupy my hands. ❤️

  6. Adrian Slater January 30, 2021 / 10:50 am

    Question number one:

    What is the thing that you are most afraid of?
    It seems to me that be able to identify and name it is the first step towards taking away its power over us.

    Number two:

    How important will this be in 100 years time?

    Similar to another question above but making sure that I will be dead before I reflect on this so that it’s not just the older self looking back but the one who has now entered into eternity.

    Seems to me that that leads to the most important question of all that we have to sort out for ourselves which is,

    Where will I spend eternity?

    It is only with this settled but I feel I have the correct perspective to look on this present life and to be able to respond to James 1:2, to “consider it pure joy my brothers whenever you face trials of many kinds.”

    • donaeley January 31, 2021 / 3:47 pm

      Adrian: Like your process. We had not considered how one question is linked to another question. It occurs to us one could also use this process to work through smaller but important and vexing questions up to the most important questions. For example, “Am I content with my financial situation?” If the answer is “no'” then the next questions might be, “Will my concerns about my financial situation be important 10 years from now?” (They might.) Or, “What are my concerns about my financial situation telling me about my relationships, fears, priorities, pretensions?”

  7. Stephen Hayes January 30, 2021 / 4:28 pm

    My everyday question when I reflectively look in the mirror is, “Do I shave or no? Coffee or tea?”
    My life’s reflective thought is, my identity is in Christ and not my occupation, bank account, status, etc. I am His child. I am His and He is mine. That’s sufficient for me.

  8. Steven Schenk February 1, 2021 / 9:52 am

    This is a set of questions that are probably fairly “par-for-the-course” for half of humanity, but I happen to be in the other half that finds these questions to be incredibly helpful for my own flourishing, and the health of my relationships with God and others:

    What emotions am I experiencing?
    Dig deeper: what am I really feeling?
    What is prompting me to feel that way?
    Why does it make me feel that way?
    What does that say about my desires? …relationships? …commitments? …expectations?
    What does God think about this?
    What should I do in response?

    • donaeley February 1, 2021 / 12:18 pm

      Thanks, Steve
      Your questions are fodder for the psychotherapist in me!!

  9. donaeley February 1, 2021 / 12:21 pm

    Thanks, Steve
    Your questions are fodder for the psychotherapist in me!!

  10. donaeley February 2, 2021 / 9:17 am

    Gail contributed these great self-assessment questions:

    TO CONSIDER FOR 2021

    1) What are the spiritual disciplines I need to cultivate to keep me connected to God?
    2) What are the practices of self-care I need to attend to my body and nurture my soul?
    3) What core relationships do I need to support me on my journey?
    4) What are the gifts, passions and burdens within me that God wants me to express for the blessing of others?

  11. Sheri Blackmon February 15, 2021 / 10:21 pm

    These are excellent questions. The last one speaks to me as I’m trying to get better at mountain biking. I bought an ebike a month before cancer and am now looking to explore more in spite of having more fear now than before cancer. I really enjoy your blog as it integrates faith.

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