Monday, July 20, 2015

How to meet the inevitable?

Reflections  (and  feelings)  on the Realization that I, too, must die!    

I was sitting with my dermatologist discussing  the inanity of the typical sixteen year old   know  it all   who sits upon a hot beach  getting terribly blistered and   insists the whole  thing  is “really cool  and hip.”  The gangly adenoidal youth imagines he is   truly “with it.” I am embarrassed   to admit  that  this ridiculous and uninformed posture was similar to my own at sixteen . It was somewhat akin to the nutty craze of my adolescence   that the height of  “class” was wearing saddle brown shoes while pretending to smoke a pipe.

Now bald and pale skinned ,  about  seven decades later, at 93 , I share with my doctor   my great insight  that since I consider such beach behavior  incredibly stupid   “I must be  getting   old “.  She shocked me by  responding:  “ Correction, Father, You are old.”   But how could this be? Being  old happens to other people . I am young  Jimmy Lloyd. I am not really old— right now I am only 93  and –well- you know—years are just a statistic, anyway!

But the nagging indices  of stiff, aching legs, the omnipresent  urge to fall asleep as soon as I sit down, anywhere, and the need I have of  saying  “eh?” to every conversation are cutting  through this commonplace denial. I am getting a message!  I am close to the end of my sojourn on this planet. Andy Rooney, the crusty old battle axe of “ Sixty Minutes”, was asked when he was 92, did he ever think about his own death” He replied “ yes and I hate it!”  It is a rare being, I think, who looks eagerly  ahead  to his personal dissolution with a “ hot diggity—hotdog “ attitude. The great saints perhaps. And their like, but for the most part, we mortals dread  the day of our death.  Most of us need to put our houses “in order.”  Most of us need to have some kind of even half resolution on this matter, even though denial and dodging honest  focusing is a badge of  our human tribe.

 Those of us who believe in an after life—an eternity with a loving  Lord have a leg up on this  human challenge.  The idea of a life  without end  while intellectually mind boggling is nevertheless appealing. There is, in the average person, some kind of powerful wish to live forever. Is that wish implanted by God?  Is  there some kind of “connect” between the wish and the reality?  Human analogies abound from an eternal land of milk and honey festooned with gorgeous virgins  all the way to the bliss of gazing  upon the Face of the  God of us all.

It is said that old men dream dreams and young men have visions. While I am keenly aware of the delightful electronics of this modern age, the speed and ease of today’s   travel, the access to art and literature, the cornucopia of  apparently endless  supply of   any kind of  data, the glorious,  contemporary  food, and my own strong wish  to “do it all”,  I am  flooded now with more pressing needs.  Various commentators on authentically living one’s life often have a final level of maturity focusing on “integration” as a way of finding  meaning in what one has experienced. This is my present “obsession”.   Youth is obsessed with the doing of things -- with the tasting of the delicacies of Life. This may explain some reluctance of  dying—that there are so many things and experiences I would still  like to have but  which are now  impossible! Yet, in old age, it is the seeking real, personal answers which absorbs one’s soul.  So I retrospect.  I assess where I have been, where I am and where I am going.

Although coming  from a densely populated area in a very large  American city, my character formation was provincial. We were highly influenced, almost saturated with an Irish Catholic ethos. For me and my sister we were somewhat diluted by having a Jewish father. We were, apparently, poor. I was the  prototypic  “dirty necked kid from the West side”. Nonetheless, our values, our spirituality, our humor, our fears were thoroughly colored by this total community value system. Our school, our church, our park were all within a 1/4 of a mile of each other. It was possible to remain within those parameters for days, even weeks and feel no need to go elsewhere. The unspoken goals were largely centered on survival, physical, social, spiritual.  Paramount, however was the notion of “saving my soul.”

As far back as I can remember, that notion clearly implied survival after death. This survival, though largely undefined, carried a profound sense of unending beauty and joy, so delightful and glorious that one would be willing to forego one’s own life in this world rather than lose  “one’s soul.” So endless stories of brave men and women were told us as children, wherein terrible tortures and afflictions were loaded on these people who at their Martyr‘s death went straight to God for “eternal happiness.”  This happiness is obliquely described by the apostle Paul as “The eye hath not seen nor the ear heard what things God has prepared for those who love Him.” This eschatological view had enormous impact on my adult and professional life. It gave a transcendental meaning to everything I did, saw, heard and encountered. It could all be lost should one die in what was called “mortal sin”, mortal meaning   deadly. 

My life as a student, Priest, teacher, media person, psychologist has been extremely fulfilling.  Professionally, socially, interpersonally.  I have known “success”.  I have hit innumerable  pastoral “home runs”.   I have published. I have had friends.  Real friends.  Men and women. From every class  and religion and political persuasion. I have travelled in strata, both physical and social,   which in my childhood days  I would have  considered totally unavailable to me, a mere day dream.  I have traveled the world on freighters and jets and dirty railroads and buses. Europe  over 30  times. The veldt of Africa many  times. The enchantment of Jerusalem. The vastness of Australia. The list would be endless.

There is something thrilling about “being there” after having seen the wonders only in books and movies and  my own fantasies. To experience the Sistine chapel and the sphinx  and Notre Dame and Victoria Falls and Sydney harbor and Madrid’s Plaza de los toros was  breathtaking.. I have enjoyed so many meals with exhilarating  conversation. But even more than travel,. It has been  people.  The joy of interaction with others has been tagged as the real source of human happiness.  The Big Tycoon with the exciting  episodes of  making big money seems utterly fulfilled  in his board room. But he, too, in quiet times, wonders what really matters! Maybe, in the depth of the soul each of us secretly knows that it is Love that matters.

The plaintive question of Tevyev of Fiddler on the Roof to his wife   “Golda, do you love   me?”  sums it up. Without love, there can be  no joy.  So have I been blessed by my early Indoctrination that God in Jesus loves me implacably with a passion beyond my ken. So even  amidst the turbulence of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ  I have been, not  repulsed  by the gory Hollywoodian depiction,  but moved almost to     speechlessness by  the graphic depiction of what He  did for me  even  were I the only human being ever  to  have lived.  So, He tells me that perfect love casts out fear! And as my Church guides me  through this dark valley She teaches me  that   all my sins have been forgiven with one heartfelt expression of love for the Father as  I lament my past with deep, deep resolution for my future atonement as I realize  how much He  loves me!

It is this love which is the real answer to fear of  dying.    Connect this with a Faith in Him which never wavers and a total trust that He means what  He says and one has an approach   to one’s own death which is workable.  But feeling loved is essential for peace in dying.I        one feels unloved and forgotten and lonely.    Augustine in his Confessions (or testimonies) teaches   “Thou has made us for Thyself O God and  our hearts are restless until  they rest in Thee.”  While one can never shed the first law of Human Nature, instinctive reflex for survival,  the question of Tevyev “ Am I  loved”? Am I?      

Why do specialists in Death and Dying often suggest that we whisper into the ear of the dying:  “I love you”?  A life lived without love is a terrible thing. But If one believes that death brings us into the eternal arms of God in unspeakable undefinable love which lasts forever,  it loses some of its sting and  fear. , nor can one live totally free of all negative