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Friendship with Death - Sacred Journeys Spiritual Community

Friendship with Death

There is no duality in Celtic spirituality… no good and bad, male and female, body and spirit, time and eternity, human and divine, or life and death. In living in a non-dualistic way, each becomes part of the other, all are interwoven into a very intricate fabric of life. To live a harmonious, balanced life requires becoming friends with all the pieces, lest focusing too much on one side, or elevating one side of a duality throws our souls off-balance.

Keeping this in mind, we’ve been talking about making friends with different areas of life: our bodies, nature, aging and today, death.

John O’Donohue reminds us that from the moment  [death] we are born, there is a presence that walks the road of life with us. That presence is death. This is not a bad thing, nor a threatening thing. In his non-dualistic viewpoint it just is. To deny this reality means we may not live as richly or as wisely as we might have if we made friends with death.

So, here’s your question of the day: what might it look like to make friends with death?

I believe that developing a friendship with the presence of death at our side begins with recognition and acceptance of that presence. Then it is a matter of listening and learning. What does death have to say to us? What does death teach us in little ways all throughout our lives?

It seems to me that the result of this type of friendship might be that we are better at keeping our priorities straight and remembering what is truly important in life. Perhaps we’ll be able to avoid getting sucked into the drama around us, or we can more easily let go of the little annoyances in life. The more I think about it, the more I think that perhaps the only way to truly live fully and vitally is by acknowledging the companion of death that walks with us.

Recently I picked up The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch, who was at the time a Virtual Technology Professor at Carnegie Mellon. It’s a quick read and a surprisingly good read. Carnegie Mellon, had a “Last Lecture Series” which they had renamed “Journeys” to which they invited selected professors “to offer reflections on their personal and professional journeys.” The irony, in Randy Pausch’s case, was that it would truly be his last lecture. Shortly after he’d been asked to present he learned – that despite what had seemed to be a successful radical surgery to treat his pancreatic cancer – the cancer had returned full force and he had merely months to live. This book seems to be an expanded version of that last lecture.

The lecture and book were full of things he had learned throughout his life; wisdom he wanted to pass on most especially to his three young children (who were 6, 4 and 18 months at the time). But as I read the book, it occurred to me that the lecture and book were really his way of processing his life while becoming friends with death at the same time. For a time he became a living witness to how one walks with the presence of death and how that changes the way one lives.

Let me share two quick stories from the book.

Pausch said that, “After I learned I had cancer, one of my doctors game me some advice. ‘It’s important,’ he said, ‘to behave as if you’re going to be around awhile.’

To which Pausch responded, “Doc, I just bought a new convertible and got a vasectomy. What more do you want from me?”

Pausch claimed he wasn’t at all “in denial about his situation, and was clear about the inevitable outcome.” He said, “I’m living like I’m dying. But at the same time, I’m very much living like I’m still living.”

In the second story Randy received an email from Robbee Kosak, Carnegie Mellon’s VP for advancement.

“She said she’d been driving home from work the night before, and she found herself behind a man in a convertible. It was a warm, gorgeous, early-spring evening, and the man had his top down and all his windows lowered. His arm was hanging over the driver’s side door, and his fingers were tapping along to the music on his radio. His head was bobbing along, too, as the wind blew through his hair. [She] pulled a little closer. From the side, she could see that the man had a slight smile on his face, the kind of absentminded smile a person might have when he’s all alone, happy in his own thoughts. Robbee found herself thinking: “Wow, this is the epitome of a person appreciating this day and this moment.”

The convertible eventually turned the corner, and that’s when Robbee got a look at the man’s full face. “Oh my God… it’s Randy Pausch!”

She was so struck by the sign of him. She knew that his cancer diagnosis was grim. And yet, as she wrote in her email, she was moved by how contented he seemed. She wrote in her email: “you can never know how much that glimpse of you made my day, reminding me of what life is all about.”

He was clear that not all of his moments were as carefree, but by and large it was obvious that he was walking with death as a friend and companion, someone to learn and grow from, someone to remind him to appreciate each moment in life… death was not the enemy, death was part of life…and understanding that made a difference in how abundantly he lived the time he had.

The letter of 2 Timothy reads as a farewell letter from Paul who was in prison expecting to die soon. Truly, Paul spent much of his last years – as he was preaching about Jesus – being beaten, tortured or imprisoned. He was one who must have walked openly and consciously with the presence of death for many years. And I believe this passage attributed to him speaks to what it looks like to develop a friendship with death and learn to keep our priorities straight.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7) This may mean somewhat different things to everyone, but here’s my thought on what they might mean when death journeys with us as a friend.

“I have fought the good fight”

  • The fight to be authentic, to live with integrity, kindness, compassion, justice, and to make the world a better place

“I have finished the race”

  • I didn’t give up, I didn’t cop out, I didn’t give up on my dreams, I went the extra distance for what was important, I engaged in life until the end

“I have kept the faith”

  • For me, personally, this means that despite everything (or because of it) I still believe in something more, an unquenchable spirit within me and within all things that connects and sustains us.

May we each strive to recognize and accept the constant presence of death with us, not as something morbid, but to ground us and keep us in balance, so that our lives are richer and fuller, with fewer regrets. And may we then come to the end of our lives and greet death as an old friend.

Love & Light!