Unlike many of Michael W. Dugger’s ink renderings that we have considered, this one seems unambiguous. Perhaps you see some ambiguity or hidden meaning that I do not. But it appears to me just as Dr. Dugdale describes it: an “image of a young boy with his grandmother.” Dr. Dugdale says this image “exemplifies the answer that most people give when asked what brings meaning to their lives.” Here she refers to a Pew Research Center survey that she described in Chapter 9. The survey “asked people to use their own words to describe what gives their lives meaning” and “participants ranked family as the the greatest source of meaning” (Page 202). Concluding with the chapter titled “Life” in this book about dying, I suggest we ask (ourselves) a slightly different question: “When confronted with the prospect of your death, for what do you want to live?”
I think most people would still answer with some version of “family.” I often hear that from patients I visit in hospitals. Parents want to live for the sake of their children. Grandparents want to spend more time with their children and grandchildren. Sometimes their desires to keep living for the sake of family are more specific: “I want to see my grandson graduate from college.” “I want to be there when my granddaughter gets married.” Or, even more heart wrenching, “My children are young and they still need me.”
I myself recall answering this question before I was conscious of asking it. I was undergoing radiation treatment for the cancer that remained in my brain after surgery. I was staying with my cousins outside Boston and had just attended Mass. As I was walking with my sister from the church to our car, I had what seemed a spontaneous thought: “I hope I survive so that I can be a priest.”
Facing the prospect of death helped my to clarify my purpose in life. I have heard many cancer patients say similar things. Sometimes they talk about how they are “getting their priorities straight” or realizing “what is really important in life.” Of course, what is important in life can extend beyond biological life and need not be limited to one thing. For me, having cancer prompted a new and deepened commitment to the God who gives me eternal life in Jesus Christ. What is most meaningful to me transcends my life in this world. But cancer helped me see my purpose in this life too.
We shouldn’t have to have cancer or any other life-threatening experience in order to know our reasons for living, or to get our priorities straight. But we do have to come to terms with our deaths. Because, for us mortals, death limits life. Death defines the span of life and poses the questions of whether and how there might be life beyond death’s limits. One way or another, the meaning of life is bound up with the meaning of death.
Of course we all know that we are going to die. The question is how well we know that and how we allow the certainty of our dying to affect our living. For me, having cancer at a young age forced me to start thinking about my death as a practical reality rather than just a theoretical truism. Confronted with the practical reality of my death, I was led to consider the reality of my life in this world and my eternal life in Christ. Maybe I needed to get brain cancer in order to do that. I don’t think everybody needs that and, of course, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But everyone does need to face death in order to understand life. And it’s not enough to know in a theoretical way that you are going to die. We need to understand our deaths in a practical way, a way that informs the practice of our living.
This discussion post is number 27 of 27, the last in our group reading of Dr. L. S. Dugdale’s The Lost Art of Dying. Thank you for joining me during the nearly eight months we have spent reading and discussing this book. I hope you will also join me for our virtual conversation with Dr. Dugdale on Wednesday, May 26, at 7:30, which will conclude our group reading project. That conversation will take place just two days after this post was published but you can still register here. I will be sending email messages with Zoom links to everyone who registers.