As we approach the sunset of our lives, it is common to feel profoundly afraid, isolated and lonely. We focus on the losses and hurts we have experienced. Spouses may have died. Even adult children may have died. Friends and business associates may be long gone! And when we become aware of symptoms, even minor symptoms, we fear for the worst. We are discouraged by the prospect of having even more obstacles to overcome and suffering to experience.
And in the face of death and dying, whatever position or prestige we once had has little meaning. We may become enraged at the injustices and evils we have encountered in this world. Death suddenly makes its approaching presence known, and tightens its grip with every passing moment. Of course, we knew it would come to this but foolishly pretended year after year that it would not!
At such a time, or anytime, is there anything more universal than our ability to feel lonely, even desperate? ... especially in the last days of our life? especially for the elderly when many we have loved are no longer there to be with us? Can there be anything more common than our need to ease that painful loneliness, to reach out and experience the warmth of contact with others, someone, to fulfill our need to feel loved? We want to feel that our life has had meaning, that we matter, that somehow our life matters.
From infancy to adulthood, we grow, struggle, work, and sacrifice to make a life. We learn, grow, fight to overcome obstacles and finally to grasp success. And how fleeting it all is! For those whose hearts have not been completely twisted and numbed by the never-ending streams of ugliness mankind is capable of inflicting upon each other, for those who are not consumed by the prevailing winds of hatred and intolerance, for those who have not given up all hope after suffering some deep disappointment, for those whose hearts can still dare to feel, love ultimately is the all-consuming motivation for everything that is done. Rather than choosing bitterness, we choose to let go, forgive and move on in life.
At every stage, from infancy to old age, we all need to feel connected with others, to feel loved. And every culture recognizes that beyond this world some "thing" or some "One" more powerful and more "knowing" than anything or anyone we can imagine exists. There is a universal yearning to feel blessed and loved by God, however we envision Him. Although we cannot really "prove" that He exists, for those who search, evidence of His existence is found all around in this wondrous world.
In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, in the fight to achieve our currently held vision of what comprises "success," many choose to place acquisition and power first and place compassion and love second. We love our "toys" and are eager to enjoy the fruits of our labors. Yet, at the end of life, acquisition and power are completely forgotten, along with almost everything else.
At the end of life, nothing but love has the slightest importance!
Death is a great equalizer.
"But what does loneliness or the end-of-life have to do with God's existence or love?" you ask? The universality of loneliness and our certain deaths tell us much about our human nature and also about God's nature. If we were mere physical creatures, how could we feel "lonely?" If we were mere physical creatures, could we be able to communicate with others, or to want to feel "connected?" If we were mere physical creatures, how could we feel love?
Can we explain our being aware of our existing without including God? Can real self-awareness or the ability to feel be imparted to rocks or sand? or to a chance collection of molecules and atoms? Can real self-awareness or the ability to feel be imparted to a computer or a robot? Can we adequately explain our having any awareness at all without including God? How do thinking, aware and feeling beings come to exist?
Working with the dying and seeing the dead has a way of evoking these and many other questions. You might find them to be unanswerable, and you may not care to try to answer them. You may insist on not answering them. Many do not. Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with these questions for ages. Scientists act as if they know the answers, being the modern "high priests" of the secular faith of our time. Yet, they have no more qualification to answer these questions than any others on Earth.
However, our impending death forces each of us (even an avowed atheist) to again confront the persistent uncomfortable questions: "does God exist?" and "is there anything beyond this world?" Every dying person will want to overcome feelings of loneliness and feel the love of those special ones in his life, whether they are yet alive or not. Every dying person will hope that death is not the end, that somehow they go on some way, beyond this life. They wish, just as they have in this life, that the life to come will have warmth, love and meaning. They hope that God really does exist and that He will bring them to a better place. Why is it that (as the saying goes) "there are no atheists in a foxhole?" Could it be that all of us hope for more and inwardly pray not to come to an utter end somehow?
Though we protest death's cold clasp, its strangle hold only increases with each passing moment. It, with finality, has the very, ... very last word in our incessant, yet ultimately unsuccessful dance to escape. Like fish flailing helplessly to escape the net and return to the life they knew, we fight to avoid the end. Many are horrified to contemplate death's finality and their final moments alone.
Death threatens to isolate us permanently from everything and everyone we have known, waiting stubbornly at a door, beyond which lies the unknown and mysterious. Even before death, for many, isolation and loneliness might be considered one of the most basic and painful forms of suffering. For that reason, isolation through prolonged solitary confinement is used as a powerful way to discipline prison inmates. Physical pain can be tolerated, but the sense of isolation involved with utter loneliness can affect us through and through. When we feel utterly lonely, anxiety and confusion rule; some even choose suicide in order to escape their intolerably lonely journey through life.
How we respond to our basic aloneness will decide what type of life we live and how we choose to die. How we respond to our basic aloneness will result in our living a desperate, fearful life, or it will result in our living a loving, faith-filled and peaceful life.
Either we choose to succumb to a preoccupation with our own problems and our loneliness, or we choose to care for others and accept whatever unavoidable hardships come our way. Surprisingly, the moment we forget ourselves and immerse ourselves in service to others, the dark shadow of despair and loneliness disappears.
How "just" that we are created with an innate need to overcome our sense of isolation and experience our relatedness, our connection with someone beyond ourselves! Why? Because everything within this world is constantly changing and invariably impermanent and unreliable, we are bound to feel isolated once more, so long as we continue to choose to focus on ourselves and not on serving others.
Second only to our awareness of our existing is our awareness of this immediate aloneness. And awareness of existing, and being alone, drives us to bridge the gap, reach out and connect. When we reach out to connect to others, seeking relief from our distress, we find a fleeting peace. We cannot have an unconditional faith in anything or anyone within this world without being disappointed at some point. Like our footprints on the sandy shore, disappearing with each passing wave, every life (even the life of someone we count upon for support and love) is transient and eventually will end. Those who see this will either rage futilely against life's seeming injustice, or accept it with humility, make the best of it and recognize that this life's journey eventually ends for all.
When we truly see that we ourselves will die one day, we may feel afraid and despair. But while facing death, we can find comfort in knowing there is someone there, with us, "present" to us, focused on us. In fact, just about everyone facing death will say, "Whatever you do, just let me die at home." They don't want to die at home just so they can be in a house alone; they want to die at home with their loved ones! That is why so many cultures have a tradition of "holding vigil" with they dying, being present to them through it all.
And even when circumstances require the ailing to die in a facility, so many patients will talk about "going home" (though they know they are not going to their physical home in the community). This is not "confusion" on the part of these dying patients, as some erroneously assume. It is their certain knowledge and testimony for those of us who remain.
What are so many dying patients talking about? What is their testimony? And why are they so sure they are going "home?" Doctors and nurses have witnessed time and time again how dying patients speak about another "place" they know exists, that they know they will soon visit, and they call it their "home." That home is not of this world, and anyone who has witnessed much of dying and death knows how common a dying patient's talk about "going home" is.
While skeptics scoff, those who are open to the evidence that presents itself realize that life itself can be viewed as a journey from loneliness, through suffering and anger, and hopefully to acceptance, completion and peace. This journey through life, on to dying and death, presents an opportunity for transformation of spirit, from a self-imposed sense of isolation and despair to a selfless love for and awareness of God.
Is it possible we are created to find lasting fulfillment and peace only when we recognize, accept and live in harmony with Him? Is it possible that happiness arises when we dare to serve and fulfill the mission we have been given?
Yes, life, culminating in the dying process, is at times a lonely journey. The intolerable feeling of isolation and loneliness in life drives us to do many things. Most of all, it forces us to seek an answer. Some, like those who came to worship the tiny baby in Bethlehem so many years ago, find fulfillment and the meaning of life there at His tiny feet, in adoring Him.
He also walked the lonely path of life with so much suffering, just as all of us must do, but His message was that we are not really alone. In answer to those confronting death's finality that ask, "is that all there is?" He demonstrates that in spite of all the suffering encountered, there is a spiritual purpose in life. He shows us that there is so much more to life and, in the face of injustice, we must dare to reach out, accept His love, and share that love with all.
Isn't this message of Christmas something that can touch all of us as we journey through life, even at the very end? Jesus, called Emmanuel ("God with us") dispels our despair and sense of isolation when He shares His secret: "I am with you always...."
May you have a blessed Christmas and a very happy New Year!