- along a wilderness trail-
I went to church yesterday to participate in a Palm Sunday service which featured a Gospel narrative recounting Jesus' suffering and death. As the congregation listened to this rather lengthy reading, I overhead a woman who sat in front of me whisper to her friend, "I always hate listening to this story - it's just so depressing."
I thought to myself that maybe this woman's discomfort over hearing the story of Jesus' death might well stem from an overall avoidance of the subject of death in general in today's culture. After all many people today have never even seen a dead body and at the first sign of wrinkles it's off to a surgeon to make it all better and reclaim the fountain of youth once again. So, it's no wonder that thinking about death or hearing stories about death are to be avoided at all costs - unfortunately doing so often prevents us from learning something about life.
I remember something a friend who has been a monk for many years once said to me: "I spend my days learning how to die." At first I thought it was somewhat macabre that someone would spend the days of his life focusing on his death, but then I realized he wasn't talking about preparing for his eventual and inevitable physical death - the disintegration of his body. He was telling me that he devotes his time learning how to die to what is unimportant so that he can live by paying attention to what really counts in life.
I am reminded of something author and spiritual guide Eckart Tolle once said:
Death is the stripping away of all that is not you.
The secret of life is to 'die before you die'
and find there is no death.
I recall some recent research reported by Dr. Ira Byock, a nationally renowned hospice-care physician. He discovered that at the threshold of physical death, there are only three of four very basic sentiments people feel compelled to express before they take their last breath:
Please forgive me.
I forgive you.
I love you.
It seems to me that these simple yet profound statements so beautifully express the core of who we really are as people - the core of what really matters in our lives as human beings.
We spend so much time on the things that, in the end, count for little or nothing - building careers, climbing the ladder of success, ensuring our investments, accumulating more and more stuff, garnering the praise of others. But on a death bed no one asks how their portfolio is doing, they don't ask if their jewelry is secured, or who at work is in line for the next promotion. They talk about what really counts in life and show us what lies at the heart of our existence:
Forgiveness, thankfulness, love.
In my experience I have often found that when people finally arrive at the threshold of physical death they often regret spending so much energy on the fringe stuff of life with so little time on the things at the center.
So why wait until you are almost dead to learn this lesson about life - why not die before you die?
I think my monk friend was exactly right, and like him, I also want to spend my days learning how to die, learning how to die before I die, dying to all that's not really me, devoting my days to what counts, to what really matters in life - building relationships, healing relationships, rejoicing in relationships, being thankful for relationships. After all, in the end, this is all that remains.
Everything else is dust in the wind.
Listen to my podcast:"Desert Wisdom"