Tuesday, April 05, 2005

How do I live?

All human drama is, to a great extent, a story of how human beings cope with the terror of death, and how they overcome the anxiety of death through a great variety of conscious efforts and unconscious defence mechanisms.

How we view death and how we cope with death anxiety can profoundly affect every aspect of our lives - either positively or negatively.

We need to learn how to live well and die well. Such wisdom and courage can only be acquired through accepting death and understanding its meanings.

Death has a thousand faces, but dying has a millions ways.

Death is ubiquitous and universal.

Death attitudes affect how we live.

We live in a death-denying culture.

When you think of death, what kind of image comes to your mind?

Is it a cold, stiff corpse lying in a coffin waiting to be buried, or is it a freeing of the human soul from the prison of a physical body?

Most of us have images of death that are negative and disturbing, and that evoke feelings of fear and anxiety.

Many people fear dying more than death itself.

According to some statistics, there are about 6,000 common ways of dying, such as heart failure, stroke, cancer, accident, lightning, natural disasters and infectious diseases, etc.

But in fact, there are just as many unique ways of dying as distinct ways of living, because the former is influenced by the latter.

Most people are afraid of dying a violent or painful death. They prefer to die in their sleep - without pain and without awareness.

But dying can be a positive and rewarding experience; it can be a time of personal freedom and growth.

Dying well begins with death acceptance. So we may ask ourselves: Why is it so few people have found death acceptance?

The answer, I believe, lies in our society; we live in a death-denying culture.

We want to delay and slow the dying process through medical science, diet, and exercise.

We want to maintain the illusion of youth through plastic surgery and adopting an active life style.

But alas, Death is the only certainty in life.

All living organisms die; there is no exception.

However, human beings alone are burdened with the cognitive capacity to be aware of their own inevitable mortality and to fear what may come afterwards. Furthermore, their capacity to reflect on the meaning of life and death creates additional existential anxiety.

What are your fears of death?

Likely they are rooted in the bases of death anxiety:

The finality of death - There is no reversal, no remedy, no more tomorrow. Therefore, death signifies the cessation of all hope with respect to this world.

The uncertainty of what follows - Socrates has made the case since we really don't know what will happen, we should not fear. But uncertainty coupled with finality can create a potential for terror.

When death occurs, we are forced to lose everything we have ever valued.
Those with the strongest attachments towards things of this word are likely to fear death most. Loss of control over affairs in the world and loss of the ability to care for dependents also contribute to death anxiety.

Most people have the fear of the pain and loneliness in dying. Many are afraid that they will die alone or die in pain, without any family or friends around them.

Others have the fear of failing to complete their life work. Many eminent artists and scientists are more afraid of a meaningless existence than death itself; their fear of death stems from fear of not being able to complete their mission or calling in life.

Acceptance of death involves a willingness to let go and detach ourselves from events and things which we used to value.

Perhaps the best way to be prepared for death is to live life to the full.

Perhaps we need to have death education. More correctly, it should be called a life and death education. Confucius said, "How can we know death when we don't know how to live."

I would say, "How can we know how to live if we don't understand death." To contemplate our death is to contemplate our life that leads to death.

Dennis Yoshikawa, a Shin Buddhist, explained that according to Shin Buddhist teaching, "to solve the problem of death, one must first solve the problem of life, living life. If one is able to do that, to live a truly human life, then there's nothing to be feared by the experience of death, because the experience of death is a natural part of life"

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the 1984 Nobel Prize for his role in the antiapartheid movement in South Africa, said, "When you have a potentially terminal disease, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. It gives a new intensity to life. You discover how many things you have taken for granted - the love of your spouse, the Beethoven symphony, the dew on the rose, the laughter on the face of your grandchild".

All of us search for meaning in life.

Human beings are born with the innate need for meaning, but it may lie dormant because of our preoccupation with the business of living.

Death and suffering awaken in us the urgent need to search for meaning and purpose for life and death.

We can discover and create meaning in every situation, even in the face of death and perhaps to enable us to achieve a better understanding of the meaning and purpose of life.

We must learn to embrace life - to engage in the business of living, regardless of our physical condition and present circumstances. Not just rationalization or cognitive reframing, but a reconstruction and transformation of our values, beliefs and meaning systems.

How we live foreshadows how we die.

When we live a meaningful life, we will leave a meaningful life.

Have you lived the life you have always wanted to live?

Have you lived a life that is worth living?

Do you have the faith to embrace death with joy and hope?

If you can answer these questions affirmatively, then you know how to live and die well.

Our death attitudes not only influence our own lives but also the future of our society.

We can choose to face death with fear or with hope .

What matters most in life and death?

Life is too short and too valuable to waste on things don't really matter.

What is worth living and dying for?

Faith can provide hope and solace in the lonely journey of dying.

In his presentation on Claire Philip's journal and poems in her dying days, Thomas Cole (1994) concluded with this powerful statement:
Her journal and poetry showed me that it is possible to live out the paradox contained in the old proverb: "Live every day as if you will be able to do good for a hundred years and live every day as if it were your last."

In reading Claire Phillip, I met a friend whose courageous growth will reassure me in times of doubt that the human spirit can continue to evolve until the every end of life.

I think it is the Apostle Paul, who has given us perhaps the most eloquent statement on positive acceptance through faith:
"When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory: Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15: 54-55)

So how do we live?

How do we die?


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