ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS

ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS


by Ann Pederson

Living Until We Die, Dying Until We Live

            Celebrating life with a how to die party: or

            What do I want when I am not able to know what I want

Surrounded by some of our favorite people, we chose to spend this last Sunday night talking about how we would want to live when we are dying and who would help us make those decisions if we were not able to do so. Most people don’t gather together for conversation and paperwork about how they want to live when they are dying. Yet, this seemed to be a good time to do so since within a week’s time individuals among us had received a diagnosis of cancer, had a relative die from a drug overdose and had a colleague receive a serious, traumatic brain injury in an accident. We decided it was time to update our legal paperwork for a durable power of attorney for health care and to express our wishes in writing about how we want to end our life (when we cannot make that decision ourselves) to those whom we love. For me, this is particularly important if at some point in my life I am not able to make those decisions myself. Who will make them for me? Most people would ask their spouse, but at my doctor’s recommendation I asked a good friend. My husband, while I hope he could honor my wishes, might find them difficult when it came down to the final decisions. He’s way too sweet and might keep me alive longer than I wanted to be!

While we were talking together over soup, wine, and bread (yes, it was very much a sacramental evening together), I recalled this passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison:

I am still discovering to this day, that one only learns to have faith by living in the full this-worldliness of life. . . one throws oneself completely into the arms of God and this is what I call this-worldliness: living fully in the midst of life’s tasks, questions, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities—then one takes seriously no longer one’s own sufferings but rather the suffering of God in the world. . . that is how one becomes a human being, a Christian.

This passage of Bonhoeffer came alive for me in an intense and vivid way after our dinner “party.” When we immerse ourselves in this world in all of its messiness, including death, then our own suffering no longer takes center stage but instead we become aware of and immersed in the pain of others as well, I believe, in the full joy of others. This-worldliness is not just pain and suffering, but also the joy and intense beauty that life brings to us. Some of those moments become heightened and God is present. This conversation about how we will live when we are dying helped me to appreciate the intense beauty of life and God’s presence in those sacramental moments of daily life.

 

2 Comments

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  1. Jay McDaniel

    Ann, thanks for your post. I have a question concerning Bonhoeffer’s quotation. He writes: “I am still discovering to this day, that one only learns to have faith by living in the full this-worldliness of life. . . one throws oneself completely into the arms of God and this is what I call this-worldliness: living fully in the midst of life’s tasks, questions, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities—then one takes seriously no longer one’s own sufferings but rather the suffering of God in the world. . . that is how one becomes a human being, a Christian.” I am wondering if you think linking human suffering with God’s suffering ever detracts from respecting the integrity of human suffering, on its own terms and for its own sake. I can imagine sharing the quotation with, say, a Thich Nhat Hanh influenced Buddhist friend who is sensitive to the suffering of others, but doesn’t see why Bonhoeffer adds the part about God. What do you think that adds?

  2. Ann Pederson

    Thanks for the comment, Jay. For Bonhoeffer, the suffering of God and the suffering of the Christian are not really separable per se. The Christian suffers in two ways–one from just being human, and the other from taking one the suffering of the neighbor. I like Bonhoeffer’s quote and would say to a non theist that I think the human suffering for Christians is exactly where God’s suffering takes place, not apart from it. I hope that makes some sense. It’s not as if God is “out there” somewhere, but is “in” the human endeavor.

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