Lessons from a terminal diagnosis

Receiving a diagnosis of having a fatal disease shocked me last September. The experience underscored three truths:
  1. Few of us know when we will die. And, except in cases in which death is imminent (e.g., from illness), I would prefer not to know when I will die.
  2. The possibility of imminent death, always a possibility for everyone yet something that we invariably discount heavily to avoid becoming overly morbid and too risk avoidant, was undeniable. Moments became precious. Some South Koreans stage fake funerals to gain more appreciation of life by allowing death to become more of a reality.
  3. Upon being diagnosed with a terminal disease, I had no interest in shopping for healthcare even though I am fortunate enough to have healthcare coverage that often allows considerable choice of providers. What I wanted was a cure (something that is currently impossible) or treatment that would allow me to live as well and as long as reasonably feasible. I had a disease of which I had never heard, no criteria for judging the best available treatment, and was in no condition for researching treatment options.

Now being in remission and having a relatively good life expectancy prognosis for someone with my diagnosis, the most poignant question with which I grapple is: How do I want to use my remaining time, presumably a number of years?
Persons with a terminal diagnosis are not the only ones who ask that question.
In working as a chaplain with young adults, I found that many of them rarely struggle with that question. Instead, many young men and women act and talk as though they simply want to grab all of the gusto they can, regardless of the risks, confident of their own invulnerability. The largest number of exceptions to that generalization I discovered was among the Midshipmen at the Naval Academy, many of whom were highly motivated to achieve some form of greatness or excellence in life. I suspect this is also true of students at the nation’s premier colleges and universities.
Midlife crises represent another moment when humans often find that they cannot ignore the question of how they wish to use their remaining time.
Christians should also ask that question because we all have a terminal diagnosis. Death invariably follows birth. The Easter season, after living with the stories of Jesus’ death during Lent and Holy Week and now living with the stories of his resurrection, affords Christians an excellent annual opportunity to ponder the question, What do I want to do with the rest of my life? How do I want to live?
One of the vital yet often ignored differences between Christians and many others is that Christianity maintains life has a purpose. Popular preacher and bestselling author Rick Warren has packaged the presumption in his book, The Purpose Driven Life. I love the book’s title. I find his exposition simplistic and wrong. Contrary to Warren, our goal is not to persuade others to accept any form of the Christian credo.

Instead, I argue that our goal is to increase the love of God and love of neighbor. Loving God is difficult because as I have repeatedly insisted in Ethical Musings postings, the idea of God is irreducible to human language or concepts. We can, however, not only easily identify our neighbor but also, in moments of honesty, know how well we love our neighbor. Indeed, perhaps the two precepts are actually one: perhaps the best way to love God is to love our neighbor.


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