Life and Death: A Balancing Act

 

Death, or the specter of death, has been weighing on my life lately. It feels like a weight that I am able to carry, but one that is sometimes oppressive.

I first noticed it around D-Day. Normally I try to take these events in stride. After all, life and death are inextricable partners, no matter how difficult they may seem. But the thought of soldiers dying in huge numbers, and their leaders knowing that they would likely be sacrificing their lives, was a sad awareness that still lingers.

Then there are those events closer to home, in space and time. Those soldiers who are in the military risking their lives every day. Or the people in Congo who are once again dying from Ebola, primarily because terrorists won’t allow them to get treatment.

Even more present are the people directly in my life. Those I serve in hospice care. Or my friends in Thailand, one of whom will probably need to have her feet amputated due to her lack of care for diabetes. Or a neighbor who was in great health, had a stent put in, experienced pain and was told that it was probably due to the surgery, and 24 hours later was diagnosed with a heart attack. (His condition is improving, but he will probably have permanent heart damage.)

So it is easy to be caught up in the death side of the equation. But an equation, after all, has two sides. And we betray our own lives when we do not recognize the “life” side of the calculation.

How am I working with that? I celebrate those young soldiers of D-Day who showed amazing courage and dedication to give their lives for their country. I am beyond grateful for those men and women who serve in our military today, often leaving family and friends behind, because they are called to protect all of us. I can’t imagine that kind of dedication and am humbled and honored by their commitment. The people in Congo are at least being served by a brave contingent of medical personnel from all over the world who are willing to defy those who would let their countrymen die because of their hateful and bigoted views. And my hospice friends—and they often become friends—one who has dementia, but somehow remembers me when I visit; one with whom I watch Family Feud, our primary way to communicate and commiserate; and one caretaker who appreciates my giving her time off so she can go to a weekly meeting that is important to her. The friend in Thailand—I mainly am deeply saddened, because there is no good ending for her; she is a reminder of the ways that our fear of the unknown can cripple us, literally, when we choose not to act. And my friend who had the heart attack: he’s a resilient, active guy. I expect he will defy any odds and come back full tilt to embrace his life of golf and bicycle riding. His faith will carry him through.

So the shadow of death that has colored my daily life is receding. It will always be there, since it is most truly a part of life. But rather than weighing on me as a burden, it will rest on my shoulder as a reminder:

Every day we must celebrate life.

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There are 34 comments.

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  1. KentForrester Coolidge

    Susan, here are a few words from the 17th-century poet, John Donne: 

    “Death be not proud. . . .One short sleep past, we wake eternally/And death shall be no more.”

    • #1
    • June 16, 2019, at 8:39 AM PDT
    • 11 likes
  2. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Susan, here are a few words from the 17th-century poet, John Donne:

    “Death be not proud. . . .One short sleep past, we wake eternally/And death shall be no more.”

    Kent, that is so beautiful. Thank you.

    • #2
    • June 16, 2019, at 8:41 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  3. EJHill Podcaster

    If you live long enough this feeling comes to all of us. Mortality hit me when, in the space of about 7 years as both my wife and I watched our mothers slip into ill health and then pass into death.

    Then every ache and pain, every spot of blood on the toothbrush, the beginning of every common cold was merely the harbinger of the cancer/heart attack/disease that was going to strike me down. And then you go to the doctor and see that everybody working there is 12… well, it’s overwhelming.

    The culture changes. The people whose work you enjoyed in the arts die off. Half the Beatles are dead and The Rolling Stones are probably just animatronics at this point.

    Your work either becomes redundant or there’s a young kid who can just do it better. Suddenly you’re Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles… “I was just walking down the street and I heard a voice behind me say, ‘Reach for it, Mister!’ I spun around and there I was face-to-face… with a six year old kid. Well, I just threw my guns down and walked away… Little bastard shot me in the ass!”

    Life is that six year old kid. We all get it in the end.

    • #3
    • June 16, 2019, at 9:56 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  4. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    EJHill (View Comment):

    If you live long enough this feeling comes to all of us. Mortality hit me when, in the space of about 7 years as both my wife and I watched our mothers slip into ill health and then pass into death.

    Then every ache and pain, every spot of blood on the toothbrush, the beginning of every common cold was merely the harbinger of the cancer/heart attack/disease that was going to strike me down. And then you go to the doctor and see that everybody working there is 12… well, it’s overwhelming.

    The culture changes. The people whose work you enjoyed in the arts die off. Half the Beatles are dead and The Rolling Stones are probably just animatronics at this point.

    Your work either becomes redundant or there’s a young kid who can just do it better. Suddenly you’re Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles… “I was just walking down the street and I heard a voice behind me say, ‘Reach for it, Mister!’ I spun around and there I was face-to-face… with a six year old kid. Well, I just threw my guns down and walked away… Little bastard shot me in the ass!”

    Life is that six year old kid. We all get it in the end.

     

    We do, @ejhill. And those times do come and go. I don’t think about my own mortality much, even when people die around me. Somehow a part of me knows that their deaths say nothing about my own life and death. The only thing I do think about is the possibility of having a long, slow death and being a burden on others. I think a lot of us think about that. But it’s impossible to plan for that (except to put funds away). So the best thing I can do is take care of myself and put money away. And hope I die quickly.

    • #4
    • June 16, 2019, at 10:01 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  5. Boss Mongo Member

    “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.
    Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should
    meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and
    swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into
    the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken
    to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs,
    dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s
    master. And every day without fail one should consider himself
    as dead.”
    Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

    • #5
    • June 16, 2019, at 11:33 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. Henry Castaigne Member

    I fear that when we die our souls will not be judged. That our good and evil in this life will have not impact on where we end up. I have come to the conclusion that men have souls and if you accept that premise it isn’t unreasonable to speculate on life after death. I see no evidence that goodness will be rewarded in the next life anymore than it will be in this one. Stalin who died peacefully in his sleep may be living large in the next world while the millions he tortured and killed so suffer unjustly.

    • #6
    • June 16, 2019, at 1:16 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. Boss Mongo Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    I fear that when we die our souls will not be judged. That our good and evil in this life will have not impact on where we end up. I have come to the conclusion that men have souls and if you accept that premise it isn’t unreasonable to speculate on life after death. I see no evidence that goodness will be rewarded in the next life anymore than it will be in this one. Stalin who died peacefully in his sleep may be living large in the next world while the millions he tortured and killed so suffer unjustly.

    Pretty sure that, having souls, we’ll be judged. Just makes sense.

    Only thing I want to hear when I stand to be weighed & measured:

    • #7
    • June 16, 2019, at 1:32 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  8. Henry Castaigne Member

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.
    Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should
    meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and
    swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into
    the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken
    to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs,
    dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s
    master. And every day without fail one should consider himself
    as dead.”
    ― Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

    You quite possibly have the weirdest belief system of anyone I have ever known or read about. I have no idea how you square your love of war and violence with your Catholicism.

    Deuteronomy 30:

    19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

    The use of Abraham and Isaac is assuredly intentional. G-d forbade human sacrifice when he spared Isaac and the Jews were the first people to abandon human sacrifice that I know of. In other words, G-d chose life. I doubt that he would approve of the Samurai code.

    • #8
    • June 16, 2019, at 1:39 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. Henry Castaigne Member

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Pretty sure that, having souls, we’ll be judged. Just makes sense.

    I don’t get your point. If we have souls why would the next world be based on justice? 

    • #9
    • June 16, 2019, at 1:44 PM PDT
    • Like
  10. Boss Mongo Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    You quite possibly have the weirdest belief system of anyone I have ever known or read about.

    Thank you, Henry. I am touched and will continue to try to bedevil you.

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    I have no idea how you square your love of war and violence with your Catholicism.

    Easy. I love bringing The Good News to bad people. That simple. There are people that–if you are moral and not even religious–are sheer evil. If He blesses me with the gifts and the opportunity to help such people to achieve room temperature, then it’s a win-win.

    • #10
    • June 16, 2019, at 1:47 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  11. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    I fear that when we die our souls will not be judged. That our good and evil in this life will have not impact on where we end up. I have come to the conclusion that men have souls and if you accept that premise it isn’t unreasonable to speculate on life after death. I see no evidence that goodness will be rewarded in the next life anymore than it will be in this one. Stalin who died peacefully in his sleep may be living large in the next world while the millions he tortured and killed so suffer unjustly.

    @henrycastaigne, here’s my thinking. I believe there is a Creator. It is that Creator who expects us to live lives of virtue and goodness. That Creator is who gave us souls. There is no point in having a soul, or in expecting us to be virtuous, unless our souls are rewarded in the afterlife. That’s why I think we will be rewarded. Many of us are good just we feel called to be that way (and I think that’s G-d’s calling), and not for the reward. But G-d knows humans pretty well, and He knows that we will live better lives if we know that this demanding life will bring goodness to us afterward. Otherwise, why have souls at all?

    • #11
    • June 16, 2019, at 3:36 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  12. Henry Castaigne Member

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    You quite possibly have the weirdest belief system of anyone I have ever known or read about.

    Thank you, Henry. I am touched and will continue to try to bedevil you.

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    I have no idea how you square your love of war and violence with your Catholicism.

    Easy. I love bringing The Good News to bad people. That simple. There are people that–if you are moral and not even religious–are sheer evil. If He blesses me with the gifts and the opportunity to help such people to achieve room temperature, then it’s a win-win.

    But don’t you believe that in heaven you will constantly fight in Valhalla? Furthermore, how can you admire Bushido with Christianity’s love of life.

    • #12
    • June 16, 2019, at 4:27 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    You quite possibly have the weirdest belief system of anyone I have ever known or read about.

    Thank you, Henry. I am touched and will continue to try to bedevil you.

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    I have no idea how you square your love of war and violence with your Catholicism.

    Easy. I love bringing The Good News to bad people. That simple. There are people that–if you are moral and not even religious–are sheer evil. If He blesses me with the gifts and the opportunity to help such people to achieve room temperature, then it’s a win-win.

    But don’t you believe that in heaven you will constantly fight in Valhalla? Furthermore, how can you admire Bushido with Christianity’s love of life.

    Henry, I’m not very knowledgeable about the samurai, but their ideas overlap with Zen. Here’s the quote:

    “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.
    Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should
    meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and
    swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into
    the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken
    to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs,
    dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s
    master. And every day without fail one should consider himself
    as dead.”
    ― Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

    I believe that Yamamoto is saying that when we become complacent about life and forget about the inevitability of death, we need to apply a kind of self-correction, doing everything we can to cut through our delusion that we will live forever; we must destroy that delusion so we can live a life of truth. Death is a part of life, and to ignore its inevitability is foolish.

    • #13
    • June 16, 2019, at 4:33 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  14. KentForrester Coolidge

    If there were no God and death brought nothing but extinction and oblivion, would you behave any differently?

    • #14
    • June 16, 2019, at 5:22 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    If there were no God and death brought nothing but extinction and oblivion, would you behave any differently?

    This is one hypothetical I can’t imagine. I know from an early age that I wanted to be a good person. My parents weren’t particularly virtuous or religious. I just can’t imagine a world without G-d and try to be honest with my response, Kent. I wish I could.

    • #15
    • June 16, 2019, at 5:24 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  16. Henry Castaigne Member

    dKentForrester (View Comment):

    If there were no God and death brought nothing but extinction and oblivion, would you behave any differently?

    I’d read more Nietzsche. 

    • #16
    • June 16, 2019, at 6:50 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  17. Shauna Hunt Member

    I believe that we have a loving Heavenly Father and that we are His sons and daughters. I believe that He knows and loves us and wants us to be happy. I believe that He put us here to learn to love and help each other. We have free will so we can choose good or evil. I also believe that people are born good, but not perfect.

    If it weren’t for my faith in God and Jesus Christ, I wouldn’t be here.

    It may seem weak and make no sense to you. I’m not going to argue. Without my faith, I would have been dead at 14.

     

    • #17
    • June 16, 2019, at 7:17 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  18. Mim526 Member

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.
    Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should
    meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and
    swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into
    the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken
    to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs,
    dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s
    master. And every day without fail one should consider himself
    as dead.”
    ― Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

    There is an odd dichotomy between preparing the mind for death at any moment and fighting like the devil to be the last man (unit) left standing, isn’t there?

    And now for the reminder to not forget to fight just as hard to enjoy your life, ‘kay? :-) You’ve earned a bit ‘o peace, @bossmongo.

    • #18
    • June 17, 2019, at 7:22 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  19. Sweezle Member

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. And the reminder to celebrate life every day. When my husband died I found myself being more impacted by events like D-Day. But I have learned that it is possible to grieve and celebrate life all on the same day. 

    • #19
    • June 17, 2019, at 5:02 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  20. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Sweezle (View Comment):

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. And the reminder to celebrate life every day. When my husband died I found myself being more impacted by events like D-Day. But I have learned that it is possible to grieve and celebrate life all on the same day.

    How wonderful, @sweezle! That kind of fluidity in life allows us to move through it with grace and peace.

    • #20
    • June 17, 2019, at 5:08 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  21. Shauna Hunt Member

    My mom died four years ago. The grief, sometimes, becomes overwhelming. I think, that when we lose people we love, our hearts break. It also brings us closer to God. We gain compassion for others on a level that is so deep that it startles us. We have a taste of how God grieves for us and with us. We are never alone in our grief. I know that.

    I don’t know if it makes sense, but it’s my best shot. Thank you for your posts. I always learn new things and have stuff to think about later.

    • #21
    • June 17, 2019, at 5:31 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  22. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Shauna Hunt (View Comment):

    My mom died four years ago. The grief, sometimes, becomes overwhelming. I think, that when we lose people we love, our hearts break. It also brings us closer to God. We gain compassion for others on a level that is so deep that it startles us. We have a taste of how God grieves for us and with us. We are never alone in our grief. I know that.

    I don’t know if it makes sense, but it’s my best shot. Thank you for your posts. I always learn new things and have stuff to think about later.

    Thank you for your heartfelt sharing, @shaunahunt. Comments like yours make the post even richer.

    • #22
    • June 17, 2019, at 5:35 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  23. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge

    Susan Quinn: Every day we must celebrate life.

    A very Jewish response.

    A little bit of light dispels much darkness.

    Susan, you bring so much light into the world.

    The way we dispel the world’s darkness is to overwhem it with the light of good deeds and positive thoughts which, from what you reveal about yourself, is what you do on a daily basis.

    Keep up the good work.

    • #23
    • June 17, 2019, at 7:14 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  24. fidelio102 Coolidge

    One of the burdens of aging, which one hopes one does gracefully, is an inevitable feeling of guilt towards those we know whose lives were prematurely cut short.

    I lost both parents and two spouses to cancer. In turn, I contracted cancer myself six years ago. I survived (obviously) but, from time to time, that insidious small voice pipes up: “Why me? Why was my life spared.”

    This is where I am supposed to come up with some edifying narrative beginning “My survival allowed me to….” followed by a litany of good deeds. Sorry to disappoint you. I am nor a bad person but sainthood is some way off.

    Maybe the Creator still has some divine plan, or maybe I am supposed to discover it by myself but am too dumb to do so.

    Curiously, I have noted that every negative life event seems, with very long hindsight, to have served a purpose. (We have discussed this on Ricochet before: “When one door closes, another opens.”). I believe that some form of fatalism is the only sane way of handling life and death.

    • #24
    • June 17, 2019, at 7:55 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  25. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):
    Keep up the good work.

    You are very kind, Yehoshua. Certainly you and others on Ricochet inspire to do just that.

    • #25
    • June 18, 2019, at 5:49 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  26. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    fidelio102 (View Comment):

    One of the burdens of aging, which one hopes one does gracefully, is an inevitable feeling of guilt towards those we know whose lives were prematurely cut short.

    I lost both parents and two spouses to cancer. In turn, I contracted cancer myself six years ago. I survived (obviously) but, from time to time, that insidious small voice pipes up: “Why me? Why was my life spared.”

    This is where I am supposed to come up with some edifying narrative beginning “My survival allowed me to….” followed by a litany of good deeds. Sorry to disappoint you. I am nor a bad person but sainthood is some way off.

    Maybe the Creator still has some divine plan, or maybe I am supposed to discover it by myself but am too dumb to do so.

    Curiously, I have noted that every negative life event seems, with very long hindsight, to have served a purpose. (We have discussed this on Ricochet before: “When one door closes, another opens.”). I believe that some form of fatalism is the only sane way of handling life and death.

    What a rich and thoughtful comment, @fidelio102. I hope it’s okay for me to respond. First, I can’t imagine all the losses you have suffered, including for a time your own good health; I’m so sorry for your losses. I have not suffered any serious illnesses (yet) and wonder, with all the sickness around me, why I’ve been spared to this date. I don’t think we can know why we live and others pass away. We can only guess at the reasons. And I don’t think we have to strive for sainthood. We can only do our best: at times we fall short, but we can learn from our mistakes and go forward. Regarding the discovery of G-d’s divine plan, good luck with that! ;-) I have always said that I need to be hit with a 2×4 before I see what is in front of me. I’ve always felt I’m too dense or dumb, but I just now realized there may be reasons: things must unfold in their own good time; also, I’m busy living my life and might miss the “signs,” but I think when the 2 x 4 hits me, I wake up just in time to act. Finally, when that other door opens, it is often because we have reached out for the doorknob; I prefer to think that things unfold because we are moved to seek them out, to serve others and to live a good life. Sorry to run on so!

    • #26
    • June 18, 2019, at 5:58 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  27. Locke On Member

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    If there were no God and death brought nothing but extinction and oblivion, would you behave any differently?

    This is one hypothetical I can’t imagine. I know from an early age that I wanted to be a good person. My parents weren’t particularly virtuous or religious. I just can’t imagine a world without G-d and try to be honest with my response, Kent. I wish I could.

    Why does that follow? If you knew for certain that the only residue of your presence here would be the effect you left on the people and the world around you, wouldn’t you want that to be as positive as possible? Since we don’t know-for-a-fact there is a God and an afterlife (if we did, it wouldn’t be faith), shouldn’t we behave that way anyway?

    • #27
    • June 18, 2019, at 6:58 AM PDT
    • Like
  28. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Locke On (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    If there were no God and death brought nothing but extinction and oblivion, would you behave any differently?

    This is one hypothetical I can’t imagine. I know from an early age that I wanted to be a good person. My parents weren’t particularly virtuous or religious. I just can’t imagine a world without G-d and try to be honest with my response, Kent. I wish I could.

    Why does that follow? If you knew for certain that the only residue of your presence here would be the effect you left on the people and the world around you, wouldn’t you want that to be as positive as possible? Since we don’t know-for-a-fact there is a God and an afterlife (if we did, it wouldn’t be faith), shouldn’t we behave that way anyway?

    @lockeon, are you asking me? 

    • #28
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:27 AM PDT
    • Like
  29. Locke On Member

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Locke On (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    If there were no God and death brought nothing but extinction and oblivion, would you behave any differently?

    This is one hypothetical I can’t imagine. I know from an early age that I wanted to be a good person. My parents weren’t particularly virtuous or religious. I just can’t imagine a world without G-d and try to be honest with my response, Kent. I wish I could.

    Why does that follow? If you knew for certain that the only residue of your presence here would be the effect you left on the people and the world around you, wouldn’t you want that to be as positive as possible? Since we don’t know-for-a-fact there is a God and an afterlife (if we did, it wouldn’t be faith), shouldn’t we behave that way anyway?

    @lockeon, are you asking me?

    Or anyone who wants to reply. I’ve never figured out the “no God or afterlife means malicious hedonism” tautology.

    • #29
    • June 18, 2019, at 11:32 AM PDT
    • Like
  30. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Locke On (View Comment):
    Or anyone who wants to reply. I’ve never figured out the “no God or afterlife means malicious hedonism” tautology.

    I’m asking because I don’t know where you got the impression that could be inferred. Help me here.

    • #30
    • June 18, 2019, at 11:37 AM PDT
    • Like
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