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Death Is Not the Enemy
May 5, 2010
A couple months ago I wrote a blog entry called “Why We Need Reasons to Live.” It was a pretty good article, and the comments were even better. But I never answered the question. The closest I came was, “If you don’t have pleasures, positive goals, love, or meaning in your life, why bother with self-management?”
Well, that’s true. If we don’t have reasons to live, we won’t take care of ourselves. Then we will be more likely to get sicker and die sooner. But is long life an important goal in and of itself?
What’s important is not how long you live. It’s what you do with the time you have. In the USA, people seem to fear death to the point of terror. We will suffer any hardship or spend any amount to prevent death. Much less energy seems to go into making our time here more valuable, peaceful, or pleasurable.
Why do we fear death so much? Some death anxiety is normal, but psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, MD, wrote in his book Staring at the Sun that much fear of death comes from feeling that we have not really lived. His treatment for death anxiety is based on helping people do the things that are important to them.
Living the life we want to live not only relieves fear of death; it may make us healthier and happier, so that we actually do live longer. Psychologist Lawrence LeShan, PhD, collected dozens of examples of people with cancer who went into remission when they started “singing their own song,” as he called it, living the way they felt they were meant to live.
One client, a shoe salesman named Jim with metastatic cancer, had been given six months to live. LeShan asked him if selling shoes was his goal in life, or if there was something else he wanted to do. The man said he had always wanted to be a doctor.
Well, this was not going to happen. Jim had only a high school education, and he had only six months to live. LeShan asked Jim what it was about being a doctor that attracted him. Jim said he liked helping people with his knowledge and problem-solving abilities. LeShan asked, “If you were going to be a doctor, what kind would you like to be? Would you rather be an emergency room doc, who helps people out in a crisis and then doesn’t see them again? Or would you rather have patients that you took care of over a period of years?”
Jim preferred the ER scenario. They brainstormed about what work he could do that would give him some of these feelings. They came up with the idea of his working in an information stand along the New Jersey Turnpike, helping out travelers looking for specific services or experiences or just wanting a better vacation or some help with problems that had come up.
Jim really loved this job, and he was very good at it. He must have been, because when LeShan’s book came out five years later, he was still doing it!
So we want to sing our own song, tell our own truth, and not wait around for someone else’s permission to do so. As the saying goes, this is your life, not a dress rehearsal. It helps to acknowledge that we are going to die some day, and it may not be 50 or 100 years from now.
According to Dr. Yalom’s book, “Once we confront our own mortality, we are inspired to rearrange our priorities, communicate more deeply with those we love, appreciate more keenly the beauty of life, and increase our willingness to take the risks necessary for personal fulfillment.”
Unfortunately, many people prefer to believe they will live forever. We think we have all the time in the world to get around to important things, so, in many cases, we never do. One of the benefits of a chronic illness like diabetes or multiple sclerosis is that it shows us our limits. A diagnosis like that makes it hard to deny that we are mortal, that we have a limited time on Earth. It inspires us to make changes; it’s a “wake-up call.”
However, we all know how easy it is to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. I encourage people to take Jim’s path. Perhaps your illness can become an opportunity to really make a difference!
Also, please see my column, “Diabetes for Couples,” on dealing with low sexual desire.
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