Pain is the most individualizing thing on earth. It is true that it is the great common bond as well, but that realization comes only when it is over. To suffer is to be alone. To watch another suffer is to know the barrier that shuts each of us away by himself. Only individuals can suffer.
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”
About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
Aeschylus from Agamemnon
Blessed are those that mourn, for they will be comforted.
Jesus quoted in Matthew 5:4
I’m anticipating venturing into unknown territory. Thankfully Christ came, died and rose from the dead, and in doing so leads us out of death into a new kind of life. But the reality of living this Christian life is that I live it in community; dying is facing God alone. That can be a terrifying thought. If it isn’t, it should be. So, by looking at creation, particularly infinite creation (cosmos), I’m looking at the character, in part, of the Creator. And I am comforted by what I’m seeing.
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.
It has been three weeks since Dona died, my constant companion for 43 years. No one said it would be easy to endure this loss, I didn’t expect it to be easy, and it isn’t easy. But I am comforted and lifted up by memories; memories of how she breathed life into me over and over again. I am thankful as I think of her unfailing belief in her creator and savior. It was infectious.
And, of course, I am comforted by the support and concern of family and friends. I am thankful for their memories of Dona. Two days ago, I got a text from a friend:
“I’m acutely missing Dona today. There’s something I really want to talk to her about — she would have been my first call:)”
She went on to add:
“I’m sure you’re madly missing her!!”
Yes, I am madly missing her, but that acknowledgement of my loss somehow lifts my spirits.
Grief and loneliness joined with thanksgiving and comfort.
So, we move forward with the knowledge that those that mourn are somehow and someway blessed and will be comforted. Thank God.
On December 22, 2022, the day before the Great Buffalo Blizzard, we agreed with the oncologist to stop Dona’s cancer treatment and enroll her with Hospice. Focus will be on comfort at home. We feel okay about it. She will likely live longer on Hospice than on aggressive treatment.
Dona sleeps most of the day but is in no pain. Praise God. Although a bit confused at times and very weak, there is a calm and focus that must only come from the “peace of God that surpasses all understanding….guarding her heart and mind in Christ Jesus.”
Medical science and technology have given us 8 great years and, according to Dona, some of her best years. (Seriously, see ‘I Like the New Metastatic Me. ) We are grateful to have been the recipient of a dozen or more cutting edge or proven treatments, (which worked well until wily cancer cells morphed and found a workaround) developed by the best researchers and engineers the world has to offer, and delivered by compassionate surgeons, doctors, technicians, and nurses. But over time treatment has taken a toll. Modern medicine has its limits.
When the best efforts of our medical clinicians are overwhelmed and consumed by disease what is left? For the Christian, it is the hope of the resurrection. What does that look like? Perhaps it is like the discovery of a masterpiece that was hidden when painted over with an inferior work of art. As the later work flakes away due to time and the elements the earlier original is revealed, something beautiful and totally different. Or, perhaps it is as simple as Jesus’ parable of the house built on a rock that leaves the home intact when the winds and rains come. (Matthew 7)
It is that underlying beauty, strength, and solid foundation that is now so evident in my wife. Yesterday, I told Dona, “When my time comes, I hope I can also face my mortality directly, look it square in the face without flinching. But I think I will be frightened.”
She gazed at me for a minute, I was beginning to think she had drifted off, and then she said, “When your time comes God will give you grace and strength. But for now, you need to quit with the chipmunk cheeks.”
She was alluding to two posts she wrote early in her cancer journey. The chipmunk cheek image is from John Piper, who writes:
Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day (Exodus 16:4).
God’s grace is like manna. God gives us “a day’s portion every day.” This is why Jesus taught us to pray for our “daily” bread, not “next week’s” bread.
We need to quit being chipmunks. We don’t need to try and stuff our cheeks with today’s manna, anxiously storing up fuel for the nasty winter we imagine around the corner. God doesn’t give us grace for our imaginations, he doesn’t give us grace for our chipmunk approach to life. (Emphasis mine.)
The hardcore truth is that this habitual way of viewing the big scary world can quickly become faith-numbing insanity. “Dona,” I say to myself, “where is God in all this worry about the future? What are you fretting about? Who do you believe is really in charge?”
Me, apparently…….God waits for us to wave our white flags and allow his grace to attend to our present needs and not for those imagined future troubles. And that grace is sufficient to carry us through the day.”
So, as Dona says, I’m going to quit (try to quit) being a chipmunk and train myself through repetition, reminding myself of eternal truths, look for joy each day, and trust tomorrow, both for my life and especially for by wife’s, to the hand of God, who transcends our mortal limitations.
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.
“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
(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.
(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.
(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?
(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.
(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.
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org .
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.