Yesterday afternoon, as the last Bioethics class of the week began, a student said, “Let’s not have a downer today.”
I understood completely. For several days, we’d talked about life and death—about how we know when someone is clinically dead: when respiration and cardiac functions stop? Upon irreversible cessation of all brain functioning (or of “higher” brain activity)?
We’d explored the ethics of refusing and stopping life-sustaining treatments, suicide, euthanasia, and doctor-assisted death. Next week, we’ll consider abortion.
It’s as if we’d been walking through ICUs and cemeteries, emergency rooms and hospice facilities, hospital waiting rooms and living rooms on the day after a funeral. No wonder, my student wanted a day that wasn’t a downer.
As I lead these difficult conversations, I feel I should take off my shoes, as Moses did before the bush that blazed with mystery. I know I’m standing on holy ground. Talking about life and death can’t, and shouldn’t, be merely clinical. It has to be existential. Death is a physical event which presents psychic challenges and opportunities.
There are difficult-to-describe differences between “existing” and “living,” on the one hand, “expiring” and “dying” on the other. Sometimes people exist far longer than they live. They die before their neurons stop firing, their lungs no longer take in air, and their hearts have beaten for the last time.
I’m thankful for the ironic and healing gift of my teaching bioethics as I continue to face-off with “Frank” (my name for Multiple Myeloma). Along with fatigue and pain, my teaching keeps me aware of the deep wisdom that our learning to live fully comes from a realistic acceptance of death’s inevitability.
These days, part of my vocation is learning how to die so that I can know how to live; and, as I do, offering to folks whom it might benefit whatever I manage to discover.
This vocation isn’t “a downer.” In fact, there’s freedom and joy in it.
I keep in mind these words from Soren Kierkegaard: “Earnestness comes to consist in living each day as if it were the last, and at the same time the first in a long life."
As he was dying of leukemia, poet Ted Rosenthal (How Could I Not be Among You?) made as he distinguished between living for and living in the moment. I want to live for love as I live in the experiences which come my way.
Living in the moment, while living from and for realities which transcend and hallow the moment is a way of embracing life, opening to wonder, finding meaning, and resting in mercy while accepting death, dealing with pain, wrestling with questions, and working in trust for things that matter.