In the past week, two articles have given insights into how non-Christians face death, especially what thoughts they have as they look back on their past and look ahead to whatever may lie ahead.
The first one is Dr. Oliver Sacks, a Jewish intellectual, a homosexual, at times an atheist, and “a great chronicler of medical oddities.” His posthumous volume Gratitude, written in the last year of his life and published in November, contains four essays on the theme of “What comes next?” In A Good Doctor On Dying a Good Death, Jeremy Lott selects poignant extracts that read like a hopeless version of Ecclesiastes.
When contemplating his 80th birthday in relatively good health he said that he found it hard to take mortality too seriously:
“I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize that it is almost over.”
When he received his terminal diagnoses he wrote:
“It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.” He decided to take stock, to write, to travel, to spend time with friends and loved ones, and to tune out anything “inessential” including NewsHour, politics, and global warming.
Towards the end of the book Sacks is “weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer” and still puzzling out “what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life.” His last words:
“I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
In My Experience With Lymphoma, Harvard professor, Steven Kelman, also Jewish, shares some of the lessons about how he navigated the ups and downs of a life-changing diagnosis. What surprised him most was that he did not fall apart in connection with his diagnosis or treatment.
The strangest feature, not only of those first days but for much of the year that followed, was how preternaturally calm I felt. I am amazed I did not fall apart in connection with my initial diagnosis or the months of treatment that followed.
But it also revealed a darker side.
I also confronted less-flattering things about myself, including not having paid enough attention to friends or neighbors, and not doing enough volunteering. Both were related to obsession with work. I needed to decide how, if at all, I would change my life in what would I hoped would be my post-cancer world.
Part of this was the result of experiencing the kindness of friends.
There is no greater cliché about how people react to serious illness than to note how it makes one appreciate the importance of friends. But clichés become clichés for a reason. I would not say that before getting sick I ignored my friends, but, obsessed with work, I didn’t give them the attention they should have received…The only times I became tearful during these months came when I cried tears of joy in response to the kindness of friends and colleagues.
Some weeks after successful stem-cell treatment, Kelman is now cautiously beginning to look forward and planning on doing some of the good works he promised to do when in hospital:
I had done some volunteering before my illness, but not enough. When I got sick, volunteers from my synagogue often drove me to the hospital; I told myself that if I got better, I would volunteer for the synagogue’s cancer driving activity; three weeks ago, I called to sign up. I also will be speaking with a church in Cambridge about helping an immigrant child who doesn’t speak English at home.
Contrast and Questions
When I read these articles I was struck by the contrast with so many Christian deathbeds that I’ve been present at. Yes, some Christians do look back with regret on parts of their lives, but they also know that all their sins, failings, shortcomings are covered with the blood of Christ. What a difference that makes to a person’s peace when dying. They don’t need to live longer to make up for the past with more good works in the future. Their record is clear, their conscience is clean.
I’m also intrigued by both men’s resolve to spend more time with friends and loved ones. That should be a warning to us all not to wait until it’s too late to cultivate and cherish such relationships.
And what do we make of Kelman’s preternatural calm? He explains part of it by the busyness of the treatments not giving him much time to think. But there was more to it than that. Clearly it wasn’t a calm built on Christian peace. Was it built on ignorance of what truly lay ahead? Was it God’s common grace to a man who had not sought or found God’s saving grace? Was it the Devil giving a false peace?
Lastly, when Dr Sacks said, “I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize that it is almost over,” I couldn’t help think that the dying Christian can say, “I often feel that life is about to end, only to realize that it’s really just about to begin.” It’s too late for Dr. Sacks, but I hope and pray that Dr. Kelman will find the friend of sinners and the peace of Christ.