My work as a palliative care chaplain brings me close to death – and the range of responses that people convey in relation to this reality, including my own responses. No surprise, then, that I find George Yancy's recent New York Times' piece, “Facing the Fact of My Death,” so pertinent and compelling. Following (with added links) is an excerpt.
The fact of death is like a haunting. It frequents me, entangled in everything I do: It’s just beneath my pillow as I sleep, strolling next to me as I casually walk from one class to the next, inserting its presence between each heart beat in my chest, forcing its way into my consciousness when I say “I love you” to my children each night, assuring me that it can unravel the many promises that I continue to make, threatening the appointments that I need to keep. This sense of haunting is what the Harvard professor Cornel West calls the “death shudder.” Of this “shudder” in the face of death, he writes, “Yes, dread and terror were involved, but also perplexity. Exploration. Where does nonexistence take you? What does it mean to be stripped of your own consciousness? How do we live with the idea that we are always tantalizingly close to death? At any moment the bridge can collapse.”
I continue to shudder. Yet there is something about facing the fact of death that invites us to double back, to see our existence, our lives, differently. The scholar Mark Ralkowski, reflecting on Martin Heidegger’s notion of “being-toward-death,” writes: “In rare moments, we can be returned to ourselves by an experience of anxiety (Angst), which disrupts the tranquility of the everyday world by emptying it of its usual significance and meaning. In these moments, none of our projects or commitments makes sense to us anymore, and we see that we are committed to roles prescribed to us by das Man” – which means “the they” or “the crowd.”
I want my students to experience one of those “rare moments,” to consider the short duration of their lives. To get them to think differently about our time together, to value their lives differently, I make a resolute effort to remind my students that all of us, at some point, sooner or later, will become rotting corpses. That, I explain, is the great equalizer. No matter how smart, brilliant, wealthy, beautiful and fit you are, no matter how great your MCAT, LSAT or G.P.A. scores, no matter your religious or political orientation, we will all perish.
After hearing this, students will often become completely silent. There is a sudden recognition that something has been haunting our joy, our unquestioned and collective happiness, our sense of “permanence.” It is palpable. No matter how many times I’ve decided to remove the veil, the sting of our collective finitude continues to hit me, along with the reality of bodily decomposition and putrefaction. The unspoken reality of death, which is the haunting background of our lives, shakes my body; I mourn for me and my students, and humanity.
Yet a clarity emerges. My students and I see each other differently, perhaps for the very first time. We are no longer simply students and professor, but fragile creatures and mysterious beings who have been dying from the moment we were born in a universe with no self-evident ultimate meaning. Something as previously uneventful as sitting next to one’s fellow classmate takes on unspeakable value. That shared understanding, vulnerability and mutual recognition of collective destiny makes our time together even more joyful, even more precious.
I’m not sure if the “death shudder” will ever abate while I’m alive. And I am no closer to understanding the fact that I exist or why I must die. I don’t seem to be able to achieve the necessary adjustment, the solace of acceptance. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.” Wittgenstein helps to give voice to something mysterious about our being: It is that we exist, and that we will die, which is so uncanny. It is that both life and death are inextricably braided together that elicits the shudder. And the shudder and the uncanniness point beyond mere facts. They function, at least for me, as gestures, as intimations of a beyond, that enthrall my soul.
George Yancy, is a professor of philosophy at Emory University. His latest book is Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America. To read his commentary “Facing the Fact of My Death” in its entirety, click here.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• Chaplaincy: A Ministry of Welcome
• Interfaith Chaplaincy: Meeting People Where They're At
• Spirituality and the Healthcare Setting
• World Hospice and Palliative Care Day
• Resilience and Hope
• In the Garden of Spirituality – Debbie Blue
• Autumn's “Wordless Message”
• Autumnal (and Rather Pagan) Thoughts on the Making of “All Things New”
• Within the Mystery, a Strange and Empty State of Suspension
• Resurrection in an Emerging Universe
• Resurrection: A New Depth of Consciousness
Image: Photographer unknown.