“We can’t use the word hope until we confront reality” – Chris Hedges
On the first night I was admitted to hospital after being diagnosed with a sizeable brain tumor, a nurse approached my bed: “I heard you got some terrible news today” she said. I acknowledged that it wasn’t the best news of the day. After she had used an expletive to describe the diagnosis, and then repeated it for emphasis (or perhaps in a misguided attempt at empathy) she commented that I didn’t look very concerned. I assured her that my level of concern was ticking along quite nicely.
It is a naturally scary thing to directly confront one’s mortality. And yet since my own diagnosis of terminal brain cancer I’ve encountered a few people who claim to be not the slightest bit afraid of death. Quite frankly, I’m inclined not to believe them. Notably, none of them had actually faced their own death in any kind of imminent sense.
I can’t say that I ever entered into any kind of clarifying dialogue with people making these claims. So perhaps I haven’t quite caught their meaning. Maybe they just don’t believe in having any fear of death. Or maybe their point is more wishful and aspirational, a projection of how they would like to see themselves if ever in my situation.
In any such cases, such claims to fearlessness seem more hypothetical than existential, something more readily proposed than actually experienced. I’m reminded here of the comedian Woody Allen quipping: “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. As typically happens with humor, we laugh not because what the comedian says strikes us as purely absurd, but rather because we recognize some element of truth in the absurdity.
The ‘element of truth’ here is that although we generally do accept the fact of death, it’s also true that we are usually not so relaxed about it when death-related things get up close and personal. And there’s nothing funny about the more painful death-related things. Grief, for instance, can be one of the most hard-hitting of human emotions. When we have poignant experiences with dying or grieving people we can also sense what Rudolf Bultmann called “the powers of life that tear us apart and weld us together”.
The Life-Death Relationship
Death belongs to life as birth does. The walk is in the raising of the foot as in the laying of it down. – Tagore, Indian poet.
In the case of my own ‘life with a terminal diagnosis’ I can’t say that the experience has brought any amazing esoteric insights. (The reading of this article can be abandoned at this point if hankering after ‘The Answer’ to the Great Mystery at the heart of the universe.) No visions, revelations or far-sighted prophecy have been given. It’s not that I’m an unwilling recipient – far from it. But I’ve never viewed such things as the goal of the spiritual life. At best, they point to something beyond themselves.
I can say that facing mortality has heightened my appreciation for time, life and death existing in a relationship. I call it a ‘relationship’ not simply because of the sense in which they ‘go together’ (as suggested by the quoting of Tagore above), but also because life and death ultimately address each other – if we are to talk meaningfully about life or death in any ultimate sense then we can only talk about one in relation to the other. And any interpretation of the reality of death speaks volumes about of our perspective on life.
I tend to see time as simply the medium for the life-death relationship – Something like the water on which a riverboat floats. The boats come and go but the river keeps flowing on. Time itself doesn’t kill anybody, death comes on its own and whatever change it brings takes care of itself. And time is a big river, it quietly permeates all of our lives – Who is to say that it can’t permeate death just as effortlessly?
The water of Big River Time does not stand in any one particular place, it moves as we move, and it moves so closely along with us that we mostly take it for granted. Time, as William James pointed out, is one of those elusive concepts “whose meaning we know until we come to define it”. There is this general familiarity with time, and yet our experience of time is in each case our own.
Our experience of time also seems to change as we change at different stages of life. So when it comes to death, the question is not as singular and straightforward as whether time continues – we could also ask whether time is experienced wholly differently, whether the ending of the role it has played in life becomes a precursor to the beginning of a new role, or whether time and space are simply transcended altogether. It’s hardly ‘the norm’ for people to come back from death and report on these matters.
Put metaphorically, we might say there are many places on the Big River that are beyond our immediate view. But the purpose of this article is not to hypothesize or ‘argue for’ various possibilities of an afterlife. My interest is the larger perspective of the ‘time-life-death’ relationship, as it applies to the ‘here-and-now’, to the meanings we bring to the life we are currently living.
In this ‘larger perspective’ neither life nor death are honored by problematizing time as the issue. By ‘problematizing time’ I mean any preoccupation with “limited time” or “running out of time” – or in my case, living on “borrowed time” when surviving far longer than doctors expected. Such language only allows short-term intentions, denying a place for the longer-term purposes which give meaning to any immediate situation we find ourselves in. With or without cancer, there’s probably never going to be “enough time” when time is basically understood as a function of our external measures rather than internal rhythms.
In Part 5 of this series, I further explore this metaphor of Big River Time in the context of the time-life-death relationship.
GUEST WRITER’S BIO
Dr Geoffrey Arnold is an experienced counsellor who has worked with people with anxiety and depression issues (including ‘at-risk’ of suicide), grief, and general adjustment to life’s challenges. He is also a marriage counsellor and educator. He has a multidisciplinary PHD in education, philosophy, psychology and theology that focused on the big topic of ‘wisdom’.
To me, Dr Arnold goes by the name of Dad, Dadsie, Daddy, or Daddo. He is my rock. The person who I’ve always been able to rely on. The person who has been my guiding light through every crisis, small or large, that I’ve ever experienced. He is the most caring and giving person I have ever met. The first person to help loved ones, and strangers, who are experiencing difficulty. The ultimate advocate for the underdog. He has saved more lives than he will ever know. He is my hero, in every sense of the word. I’m so happy to be able to share some of his knowledge with you on my blog.