Stanley L. Olsen
3 Sept 2003
Living Until We Die, Dying Until We Live
Stanley L. Olsen Chair of Moral Values 2002-2005
I begin today with a question, especially for the first year students, but also for everyone present: What would you do if you heard that you would die in six months from a terminal illness? If you knew that by January or February you would take your last breath, how would your friends describe the way you lived in the last six months of your life? Some of you might be thinking that is a morbid beginning for an opening convocation talk. Possibly. What I hope to share, however, is wisdom that I was asked to pass on from seniors who were in my Capstone class last year. Their wisdom, reinforced in my own life from their witness, is the following: that in dying you learn about living and in living you learn about dying.
For the last four years I have been team teaching a Capstone course with Dr. LuAnn Eidsness, chair of Internal Medicine at the University of South Dakota School of Medicine. Possibly more than anything I have done at Augustana College, this course has had a profound impact on my own life and I have seen the same impact on the students we teach. This course on end-of-life issues is entitled, “Living Until We Die, Dying Until We Live.” During the course, students spend time interviewing and visiting folks at the end of life, listening carefully to what they learn from them. We also have students write their own obituaries, plan their funerals, and fill out advanced directives for their last wishes should they become incompetent in an emergency. During many of those assignments, we meet resistance. Most 22 year olds, in their senior year of college, don’t want to spend time thinking about death during their spring semester. Yet over the course of the semester the resistance yields to a new awareness. For example, students write:
”The personal growth gained was important. It was a hard class to sit through some days, but it made me think and make important choices in my life.” “This has been such a powerful and appropriate class for wrapping up this college experience.” “This class has opened my eyes to this issue of not only dying, but more importantly about living and how I should live my life.”
What the students realize can be summarized by this quote from Jeremy Begbie, an Anglican theologian: “Time is our destiny because our lives are lived in the knowledge that we are directed towards death. Time is, in a sense, our necessity, because there can be no un-knowing, re-living, or un-living.” As we think about our own death, we come face to face with our limits, with our finitude. We become acutely aware of how time passes. No sooner has event occurred than it is lost. We fear this loss, the fading of the past into the present. In particular, our awareness of dying and death intensifies our sense of urgency, of the passing of each moment.
By the end of the semester students share comments like: “I wish I had learned about how precious life is. . . I realize now how I have spent most of my four years wishing them away, waiting for the next future moment. I wish I would have learned these lesson earlier . . . to live in the moment so that I can be fully present for others.” And so from last year’s seniors to this year’s freshmen, and I believe to all of us, I bring this simple message: in dying we learn about living, and in living we learn about dying.
However, we learn the opposite message from contemporary culture. Death is the enemy. Our life is always geared to the future: to that which is bigger, better, faster. We are on a journey to more and more. Our vocation, our calling in life, is to be on the move. We are unable to rest in the moment, to enjoy what we have. Time as we know it is mechanized and commodified. We are always on demand: email at work, email at home, voice mail on the cell, voice mail at work, voice mail at home. Sometimes the best vacation we can have is to just turn it all off. Jay Griffiths, in her book, A Sideways Look at Time, comments: “Looking at it once, it occurred to me that this is how modernity sees time; that we are so preoccupied with our gridded, subdivided constructions of numbered measurements that we lose sight of the gorgeous, lifeful thing itself. Modernity knows the strut and fret. But not the hour.” Soon, you’ll find your life at Augustana College summarized by the following conversation. Someone will pass you in the hallway and ask: “Hi, how are you?” Most likely you’ll respond: “I’m so tired,” and then you’ll recall all the events, commitments, and assignments that hang over your head. Life is lived from one deadline to another. In four years, you’ll graduate and like my students wonder where the years went. My challenge to you is to consider life from the perspective of those who are dying, whose every moment is precious to them.
Consider the following comments from Annie Dillard, in her book on the Writing Life: “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew that you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” During your four years here, and I believe this challenge is for everyone in the Augustana community, take Dillard’s advice: “Spend it all, shoot it, and give it all, now. Don’t arrive at the end of the year to find regrets.” In dying to the moment, we learn how to live. We have so little time, really. We are born to die. Carpe diem. Yes, seize the day. This is the day which the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad in it.
God’s gift to us is to live in the “sacrament of the present moment” (a phrase I have borrowed from a 17th century Jesuit priest, Jean Pierre De-Caussade). DeCaussade understood that God was present in all of life, in the flesh and blood of our daily relationships and events. God gives life and power to each moment of creation.. DeCaussade claims that God works in and through our instincts, intuitions, and relationships. We know that God is present in, with, and under our lives. We become the living sacraments of the present moments to one and another. Unlike the mechanized moments of daily ticking, checking palm pilots, watching the clock, the practice of living and dying becomes a liturgical service marked by discrete beginnings and endings.
Through the daily practices, and habits of daily life we experience God. Ritualized beginnings and endings give us the freedom to experience the power of the present. Christopher Bamford, a contemporary author, explains what he learned about “the sacrament of the present moment” as he watched his wife die: “Every day unfolded almost as a liturgy. So time also became liturgical, the enactment of a divine service in which not just I and the others around me but the whole universe participated with enormous love and reverence.” Time, instead of a burden, becomes gift. A gift we realize, relish, and give back. I can’t tell you how many times I heard from our students that they were so surprised how full of life, how attentive to others and to the moment, those who were dying were able to be. Those who are at the end of life taught those students that life is not to be hoarded for self, but to given back with joy and service to others. The end of life becomes a ministry of presence for others. Students who thought they would bring comfort to the dying found the roles reversed. In dying, we learn to live.
My hope for you is that you find and celebrate the day as it is, God-given for your use and delight. Maybe I’ll have you in Capstone in four years and you’ll already have internalized what my students this last spring wish they would have learned sooner. From a final essay of a student, she comments: “One may ask, if we are only living to die, then what is the point of living? The point is that in order to live well, we must die well. Through our lives, we live and die several times. Each day we wake up, we are reborn. However, all things must come to an end and each night a small part of our life dies. It is only through this gradual process that we are able to be reborn each day. Sleeping and waking are daily rituals of life and death.” I’m reminded from this student’s words of the prayer some of us may have learned at night: “Now I lay me down to sleep. . . “ Dying and rising each day. And now to conclude with a few more words from Annie Dillard: “Why does death catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking. We should amass half dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.” (Annie Dillard) We only have this moment, God given. Wake up, and don’t miss the show.
Some relevant web sites
Death with Dignity