Beyond Death and Dying

“The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered…We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful.”
Elizabeth Edwards   

I have noticed a curious phenomenon.  As I get older and the people I know get older (which is most of them), there seems to be more concern about death and dying.  I observe more people talking about their heart conditions, ailments, cancer or whatever ills afflict them. Some of these people could go on forever talking about doctors, appointments, medical exams, medical procedures, treatment regimens, hospital care, nursing care, palliative care, hospital food.  Perhaps I am in denial, but five minutes is enough for me to hear about death and dying.  I am sorry, I know you are dying but so are we all.  Do I really have to hear about every stage of your progress towards your end journey?  Is there nothing else to talk about?  What about living?

Death seems to be the most common fascination of our news media as well.  Each day brings a fresh story of some new death, murder, massacre, slaughter or other carnage.  What would it take to produce more stories of people who are really living?  Of course, we do occasionally get snippets of such people.  One of the most inspirational stories of the past year concerned the young Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai who was shot by the Taliban. 

Malala was a 15-year-old who was shot at point-blank range in October 2012 after becoming a symbol of resistance to the Taliban’s efforts to deny women education and other rights. The attack on Malala, which also wounded two of her classmates prompted international revulsion and condemnation, and helped galvanize supporters of women’s education worldwide.  This is a story worth telling and it is a story about defying death and dying.  Threatened by the Taliban with death, Malala refused to be silent.  She put her life on the line for her beliefs.  Death was not a fascination with Malala but an acceptable risk for living her life and not being afraid to pursue her beliefs.

“When we talk about sin, we need to understand what sin is. Sin is not God says ‘you can’t do this’ because He wants to take something away from you. He says: “If you do this, it will be death. If you do this, it will be life.” And then He says: “Please, choose life, so that you can live. I’ve made you, I know how you work. I’ve made this whole Earth, I know how it works.  Please, choose life.”
― Lacey Mosley

I understand that each moment brings me closer to my death but more importantly each moment is another moment of living.  My brother-in-law suggested that the only reason people retire in Arizona is to die.  I was not offended by his remark because in some ways it seemed to be true.  I have met too many people down here who seem to be somewhat patiently and stoically marking time until the Grim Reaper comes for the harvest.  Some of them seem to be having fun while waiting and others seem to be morbid about the wait.  I often meet people who say “I wish I had something to do” or “There is nothing to do down here.”  Nothing to do except wait until they die. 

To have a sense of fatality about life is perhaps not a bad thing.  Before I received my prostate cancer diagnosis, I was continually battling (at least mentally) such comments as “You are so healthy, you will live to be a hundred.”  “You are a runner, you are so healthy.”  I would often comment on the numbers of runners I knew who dropped dead of a heart attack.  I hope it was not connected to their runningJ.  I am sure that I offend some people when I am not as sympathetic to death and dying as they are.  For instance, I may hear a comment like: “My sister-in-law who is 85 years old is dying of some incurable disease.”  Well, I am very sorry, but we all are going to die someday and 85 is not a bad age to live to.  I feel more sympathy for the unexpected deaths and premature deaths that afflict families. Young people who die before their “allotted” age.  On the other hand, what are any of us allotted? 

Instead of focusing on dying, we should be more concerned about what our living means to the world.  What are our lives writing in the sand each day?  What footsteps do we take?  What good are we doing today?  What kindness are we bestowing? What value are we creating for others?  God Forbid, are our golf scores and Pickleball matches going to be our legacy to life?

“I’ve reached the point where I hardly care whether I live or die. The world will keep on turning without me; I can’t do anything to change events anyway.”
Anne Frank

I have been struck by the emphasis on the goal of retiring that many people placed when I was growing up.  It once seemed to be the sole reason for working.  “When I retire” was a mantra and a rationale for putting in 30 years at a job one hated.  “Someday, I will sit on the dock and fish every day.”  Ironically now, many of the “retired’ people I know are busier than ever with schedules chocked full of activities.  But what is the value of a day full of activities?  Echoing my brother-in-law, are we simply filling up our days until we die?  Is there any value in living that does not include purpose as well as passion?  Is it enough purpose to golf or fish every day? 

I think the reality is that most of us are not taught in schools or even in our homes to pursue a life of passion and purpose.  If we were taught to pursue a life of passion, we would go into work and careers that we loved without concern about “making a living.”  We would follow our hearts more and our minds less.  If we pursued purpose more and money less, we would all be driven to find work and goals that helped make the world a better place for future generations. We would be more concerned about finding ways to help the poor and the less advantaged.  We would be less worried about what we need and more worried about what others need.  The world would be less greedy and less self-centered. 

Living is to worry about others.  Dying is to worry about your-self.  What can I do to make a difference today is a question that helps keep the focus on giving back rather than receiving. 

“I have showed you all things, how that so laboring you ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.”   –Acts 20:35 (King James Version):

We have all heard the quote that “Today is the first day of the rest of our lives” but I rather think now that “Life is just beginning.”   When I was young, I did not really know what life was.  That is not to say that I know what it is now either. However, I am much more content with life and I am able to live more in the present.  Living in the present was never my strong suit. I think the young do not worry about death and I know that when I was young, I had an almost suicidal attitude towards life. Like I was challenging it to try and kill me.  A friend of mine used to say he had “no regrets” and when he died, it was the theme of his funeral.  Some might say he died too young but he reminded them as he was dying that he “had no regrets.”  I doubt that anyone could make such a claim unless they lived their life with passion and purpose. 

To conclude then, don’t die, live.  Dying will take care of itself. It is the living that needs care. While, I am not going to jump off any high cliffs in the near future and I certainly am more cautious about some things, too many cautions can be live threatening activities.  What is life for if not growing and growing means taking risks?  When you stop growing, you stop living.  When you stop living, you have only dying to look forward to.

“All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring.”
Chuck Palahniuk    

Ok, time for questions:

What does living mean to you?  What fears do you have of death?  Why?  Are you really living or are you just marking time?  Do you have passion and purpose in your life?  Do you think it’s too late? What would it take for you to live a life of passion and purpose?  What fears stop you from really living?  Are you banishing fears as you get older or are you accumulating more fears? What good do they do you?

Life is just beginning.



9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jeanine
    Mar 05, 2013 @ 16:16:08

    I so enjoyed reading this blog because there were so many points I could relate to, and many I could not. The ones I could not relate to were the negativeness some people feel as they grow older. I have a wooden plaque that was given to me by my husband for Christmas. The plaque says, “LIFE IS GOOD”. It is my mantra every morning when I wake up and see John getting dressed for work. I laugh and tell him, ‘LIFE IS GOOD”!! I love retirement life and there are not enough hours in the day to do all the things I want to!
    I especially loved your mention of Malala, who after hearing her speak in London after her many surgeries, I deeply admired. She is a young soul in an old soul’s body. I have yet to hear such wisdom come out of a teenager’s mouth, and it was inspiring.



    • johnpersico
      Mar 05, 2013 @ 19:13:31

      Thanks Jeanine, for the comments. I am curious which ones you could not identify with? I sometimes felt I was being a little too critical of “old” folks when I wrote this. My point was to not let death define our lives.



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