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Staring Death in the Face

Updated on February 6, 2012

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Being Confronted with our Mortality

About two and a half years ago, my wife’s father was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. When it was detected, there were already tumors in his brain and hip. His condition quickly deteriorated, and he died about six months later. There are a lot of horrible ways to die, but cancer must be near the top of the list. Your body is slowly eaten away like it’s at war with itself. As his pain grew worse over those few months, I remember feeling that sooner would be better than later. Hopefully, when my time comes, I will be one of the lucky ones who get to go quickly. Of course, at the moment, I hope that it is later rather than sooner.

I have tried to imagine what it must have felt like to be my father-in-law over his last few months. We all know that death can come to us at any time, but with a terminal illness, the reality of death is staring you right in the face. I imagine that all of the emotions associated with death, feelings we usually try to put out of our minds, must get amplified. In the end, it was impossible for me to put myself in his shoes. I do remember, however, experiencing my own near death experience while he was suffering his ordeal. I had an extremely vivid dream in which I had been diagnosed with cancer and had only a short time to live. I was a young man in the dream, maybe a little younger than I am now. After this dream, I spent several days trying to process the emotions that still seemed very real. To a certain degree, the echo of that dream remains.

To my surprise, I was not, in this dream, either fearing the afterlife or looking forward to it in hopeful anticipation. Like most Americans, I was raised with the concepts of heaven and hell etched into my mind. For me, however, the fear of hell was always more powerful than the joyful prospect of heaven. But as I have stated in other articles, I drifted away from Christianity some time ago. Today, I don’t have any clear set of beliefs about what may await us (if anything) after death. If something does await us, I suspect that it will be more interesting than anything that we humans have made up. Hell, for instance, is a particularly irrational idea. I doubt that people who believe in some kind of eternal torment have ever deeply thought about this concept. Eternity, after all, is a hell of a long time. Heaven for me is almost equally confusing. Who will I be in heaven? Will I be myself at ten, twenty, forty, or eighty (if I ever get there)? And what do we all do for eternity? Playing a harp on a cloud must get old after a while. Possibly the most confusing thing about the Christian concept of the afterlife is its all or nothing nature. We either get eternal paradise or damnation. There is no middle ground. (Catholics have purgatory, but I get the sense that this concept has not really caught on.) Since we all face unique circumstances, and human beings are such a complex mixture of positive and negative qualities, it seems strange that we can all be broken up into these two extreme categories. Of course, my confusion may be caused by my limited mortal mind. The only problem with that argument is that it can be used to get people to believe anything. Truth be told, no theory that I know of about the afterlife, or much of anything else related to theology, makes much sense to me.

Whether my beliefs are right or wrong, thoughts of the afterlife were simply not an important part of my dream. So what was I feeling? The only emotion that I distinctly remember, an emotion that was deeply unsettling and made it hard to fall back to sleep that night, was regret. And when I say regret, I am not talking about a sense of disappointment caused by all of the mistakes and missed opportunities in my life. I have had my share of screw-ups, but all and all, I am pleasantly surprised with how my life has turned out. Instead, my regrets were focused on the future. Some of this was selfish. I thought about the racquetball games I would never get to play, the places where I would never travel, the new music I would never hear, and the future technological marvels that I would never get to see. Some of this regret, however, was a bit nobler. If I die young, I won’t get the chance to grow old with my wife. I will never know how my kids turned out. I will never hold a grandchild. My kids will grow up without a dad. These kinds of thoughts can tear a person apart more than the pain and fear caused by cancer.

In my modern American history classes, I usually show a brief scene from “All Quiet on the Western Front.” This is a movie based on a book that was written by a German man who fought in World War I. It is one of the classic anti-war novels of all time and one of the greatest books that I have ever read. When I show the movie, students often laugh at the carnage. Part of this may be caused by discomfort. Some of them laugh because the tactics used in the war (like the war itself) were so incredibly stupid. Others, however, like many Americans, are probably entertained by violence. Like some of these students, I used to have a good time watching things explode and people get shot. I don’t so much any more. Instead, like with my wife’s father, I try to imagine what it would be like to face imminent death. What was it like to be a World War I soldier getting ready to charge a row of guys, dug into a trench, waiting for me with machine guns? I have mixed feelings about soldiers and war. Nothing in my experience compares with what soldiers do, and they deserve both awe and respect. But at the same time, I am horrified by what they are ordered to do.

I recognize that war may be necessary at times. I suspect that in most cases, however, it can probably be avoided, and the costs generally outweigh any benefits. I hope, therefore, that when politicians send young kids off to possible maiming, psychological trauma, and/or death, they reflect before they act and try to put themselves in the soldiers’ shoes. Some political leaders – John Kerry, John McCain, and many others – don’t have to use their imaginations. They have been there. I get the feeling, however, that some politicians, usually those who have never been close to combat, are too nonchalant about military action, and some may even glorify it. Many Americans, after all, see the willingness to use violence as a sign of strength, and the last thing that politicians want, especially presidents, is to appear weak.

In that battle scene that I show from “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the soldiers getting shot and blown up look like a bunch of scattering ants. As you watch, it’s easy to forget that all of these scattering bodies were individual human beings – people with parents, brothers, sisters, children, and grandparents - getting cut down in the prime of their lives. Many of them may have feared the afterlife or looked to it as a source of comfort. Still others thought that death was simply the end. Regardless of their beliefs, however, I am also sure that they grew up dreaming of raising families, getting educated, finding a fulfilling career, holding grandkids, and seeing the wonders that the future might bring. And in those moments right before the battle, their likely, imminent deaths created strong feelings of regret regarding all of the things that they were probably going to miss.


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