Keeping death before our eyes

By Leo Campos

In talking with a friend of mine who works for a divorce lawyer, she told me the story of a client who is dying of cancer. All of us have been directly affected by cancer, and most of us have been directly impacted by the death of someone close. We also know plenty of survivors and we rejoice with them. This is one of the reasons why every year I join the Susan G. Konnen Race for the Cure here in Richmond. I have been taking my son since he was 6 to run the 5k with me. He is quite knowledgeable about cancer by know, and a strong advocate of wearing pink.

There is something very bitter about terminal illnesses that comes from the degeneration, usually quick, of a loved one before our very eyes. It is as if they are running their lives in fast-forward while we are in normal speed. It is not as if any of us do not know we are going to die (excepting the chronic megalomaniac and teenagers). It is not death as such, I believe, that is shocking and bitter about this. Rather, it is the rush towards death which the disease causes, bringing with it accelerated suffering.

We are all dying slowly, at a natural pace, at an orderly rate. Cancer and other diseases break that unspoken contract, and go speeding down the road. We cannot keep up – emotionally, mentally, spiritually.

Monastic wisdom has always recommended that everyone keep in mind their mortality. Benedict in his Rule suggests that the religious keep “death in mind at all times”. At first blush nothing seems to be less desirable. Why would I want to remember such a depressing thought? To our ears it seems like a morbid focus on the negatives.

Here it is important to find ways to take a step back and assess our own judgments. First, we live in an age which idolizes youth. Everything, nearly everything, is about staying young. Our whole culture has a form of thanatophobia (fear of death) which seems to have reached unprecedented levels. If you listen to the news (something I highly discourage) you will see that almost all the dire health warnings, the “obesity epidemic” or the tobacco pogroms that are going on, they all reference how eating fatty foods leads to…premature death. Smoking leads to…premature death. Lack of exercise…premature death. And then take the advertising for cosmetics and other drugs. They are “age-defying”, “youthful looking skin”, “feel young again!”

So when a voice from the past, a voice which lived in a world where death was imminent, and the expectancy of a long life was of about 40 to 50 years, that message seems so foreign as to be nearly alien.

But if we allow ourselves a little patience and the space to deal with issues of mortality, we will find much wisdom in the idea of keeping death before our eyes. All this means is that we need to make decisions based on reality. I have found that I tend to make decisions as if I was going to live forever. Is it a mistake to do this or that? — it does not matter if I have infinite time to fix any mistakes.

But let us go a little deeper. Keeping death before our eyes is possibly the most effective way to counteract our implicit egotism (also known as “unconscious self-enhancement” – I love that phrase!). We all are egotists and we work hard at transforming our environments to both bolster our self-image and to protect it from any harm. Notice that I say “it”. But no matter what barriers we put up, no matter what Neverlands we build, death always enters. And disease (always a threat) is the ultimate offense to our anxiety for immortality.

Back to my friend and her story about the client who was dying of cancer. You might wonder why she needed a divorce lawyer? Because her final wish was to get divorced. The lady was so weak they needed to go out to the car to depose her. She could die any day – so the paperwork needs to be rushed.

I am not sure if this is tragic or liberating (it certainly is uncommon). But death makes individuals of us all. At death’s door we will stand in our own convictions and our own faith – nothing imported will do.

When you have all those external things that support you in life removed, what will you stand for?

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude, a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the “tech guy” for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

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