A beautiful and touching piece by Jerry Fensterman in today's Boston Globe (you may need a free registration to read the whole thing), exudes a Taoist sensibility toward life and death. Here is his story:
I am approaching 50, recently remarried, and the father of a terrific 13-year-old young man. By every measure I enjoy a wonderful life. Or at least I did until April 2004, when I was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Surgery was my only hope to prevent its spread and save my life. The discovery of a new lump in December 2004 after two surgeries signaled that metastasis was underway. My death sentence had been pronounced.
And it was from that position, facing death while living life, that he came to understand his life better:
Life may be the most intense addiction on earth. From the moment I first heard the words ''you have cancer" and again when I was told that it was spreading out of control, I recognized my addiction to life almost at the cellular level. I have tried since then, as I did before, to live life to the fullest. I also committed myself to doing everything within my power to extend my life.
There is no contradiction here. On the one hand, he has confronted the limitations of his life, which we all must ultimately do, and on the other hand he has discovered in that confrontation the means to living the life that is left him to the fullest. He describes this as an "addiction," a word with an obvious negative connotation, something to be kicked. And, while there are certain enjoyments in most addictions, he does come to "cure" his:
Mine has been a long, difficult, and certain march to death. Thus, I have had ample time to reflect on my life, get my affairs in order, say everything I want to the people I love, and seek rapprochement with friends I have hurt or lost touch with. The bad news is that my pain and suffering have been drawn out, the rewarding aspects of life have inexorably shrunk, and I have watched my condition place an increasingly great physical and emotional burden on the people closest to me. While they have cared for me with great love and selflessness, I cannot abide how my illness has caused them hardship, in some cases dominating their lives and delaying their healing.
Perhaps the biggest and most profound change I have undergone is that my addiction to life has been ''cured." I've kicked the habit! I now know how a feeling, loving, rational person could choose death over life, could choose to relieve his suffering as well as that of his loved ones a few months earlier than would happen naturally.
The good that has come out of his predicament is the reconciliation he has reached with friends and family. The pain, for him, is watching the emotional toll his condition is taking on his loved ones. So, finally, he has "kicked the habit," he can face his death, accept it. How many of us can say that? While he now understands how some people in similar circumstances might choose doctor-assisted suicide, he will not make that choice for himself. He would not, however, deprive others of that possibility.
At the end of the day, he has found a balance between accepting death and living life. He has done experimental medical treatments to extend his life, and those have strengthened his acceptance of death. Conversely, his tolerance of his impending death has allowed him to gain more from the daily detail of his life. And he has done us all a service by writing this extraordinary article.
I don't know if Fensterman has ever read the Tao Te Ching or Chuang Tzu, but his frame of mind here is very much in keeping with those thinkers on the question of death. As in my previous post on suicide, passage 50 of the Tao Te Ching (these excerpts are from the Hendricks translation) speaks to Fensterman:
We come into life and go back into death...
And yet people, because they regard life as LIFE, in all of their actions move toward...the realm of death.
Now, why is this so?
Because they regard life as LIFE.
If we hold on to life too strongly, if we insist on seeing life as LIFE (an inflated image of what it really is), then we are not fully living but simply moving toward the realm of death. But if we let go of our overblown expectations of what we might accomplish in our lives, and simply live the life that is before us, there will be "no place for death" in us, as this excerpt from passage 50 suggests:
You've no doubt heard of those who are good at holding on to life:
When walking through hills, they don't avoid rhinos and tigers.
When they go into battle, they don't put on armor or shields.
The rhino has no place to probe with its horn.
The tiger finds no place to put its claws.
And weapons find no place to hold their blades.
Now, why is this so?
Because there is no place for death in them.