05 May 2017

Followup on Death as Decision

[[Dear Sister, [in your last post] are you saying that dying is a decision? We decide to die? I don't think most people would agree with that. If today I just decided to die could I die? Why wouldn't that be suicide? Do you see what I mean?]]

Thanks for the questions. They open up some extremely important distinctions and nuances. Let me try to explain. If I am standing at the sink doing dishes or am vacuuming or something and "decide to die" despite being perfectly well physically, well no, that is not what I mean by calling death a decision. But if I am in the process of dying, of physical dissolution, or the moment of death has arrived because of illness or accident, for instance, then death itself has the quality of decision; it IS a decision, an act of entrusting ourselves first of all to the infinite uncertainty of death rather than holding onto the limited certainties of our life here and now. While other processes (physical, biological)  are also at work the essence, the fundamental nature of death is its quality as decision.

Secondly, and especially for the person of faith, this act of giving ourselves over to death is a decision to entrust ourselves entirely to God, the source of life --- even as we let go of self and mortal life with our own plans and dreams and visions of the future. (To be sure, every act of selflessness, every act of faith in God, every commitment we make to not live for self or to sacrifice the things we prefer for the sake of God and His Reign, is a kind of prefiguring of the more radical decision just described.) We see both dimensions of the act of dying most clearly in Jesus' passion and death. Jesus was faced with the terrible uncertainty of death (his cry of abandonment and complete aloneness was an instance of this I think) and yet he remained entirely vulnerable and open nonetheless. At the same time his openness was not without content; it was an openness to God, specifically to the One he knew as Love-in-Act and called by name as Abba, the One whose love was stronger than death. In spite of every cultural, religious and even every personal indication otherwise, Jesus trusted that his death, and so too his life, was not meaningless, or perhaps would not remain meaningless. Jesus gave himself over entirely to both dimensions of death but at bottom this "giving-over" was a radical and exhaustive decision for and on behalf of God.

This decision is implicit in every human act and activity. The task of faith is to make it explicit, to shape our lives according to choices for God (and this means all revelations or manifestations of God up to and including life itself). It means refusing to shape our lives in terms of selfishness but instead choosing selflessness. It means refusing to grasp at life as something we gain by our own efforts and skill, but instead receiving it as a gift of God. In the act of death (dying is a process, death the final event of decision) we make this choice as radically as possible because we finally and truly accept there is simply nothing we can do to make ourselves live. We want to live of course and we choose to live; even more we choose LIFE and especially therefore, life as gift, but at the same time we entrust ourselves both to the unbounded uncertainty of death and to the God who is greater than death, even --- if we believe the resurrection of Jesus --- sinful godless death.

The difference between this and suicide (and here I am only speaking generally about suicide) is that in suicide we do not accept life as a gift, as something we can and must only receive even when we are too weak or helpless to do anything else. In suicide, generally speaking, we cannot or do not see any possibility of God endowing our lives with meaning or beauty or rest (sabbath) or dignity, etc., despite our own frailty and helplessness. One's vision is limited, for whatever reasons, and one's capacity to trust in something larger than oneself is exhausted. One chooses to close oneself to anything larger and decides for the only apparent or putative act of control one has at hand. One acts to end everything --- as though that is ever possible.

In suicide one can convince oneself s/he is doing the selfless thing (and in some situations --- for instance, where death (and life!) is actually being forestalled by medical technology or treatment), this makes sense), but ordinarily one is deluding oneself. Generally speaking, in suicide one takes death into one's own hands and closes oneself to life-as-gift. In seeking to limit one's vulnerability one makes of death a small or calculable reality and, at least implicitly, judges that nothing more is possible. In so doing one does not give oneself over to the uncertainty of death. Instead one makes death the one certainty, the one reality one believes one can completely comprehend and control. One does not embrace a mystery in the act of suicide; one rejects that there is mystery --- whether in life or in death --- and affirms that one has the whole truth in one's own hands.

So, back to your question about death as a decision and dying simply because we decide to die. In some situations death is also something that occurs because we decide to allow that to happen. I am reminded of something I saw a number of times during my work as a hospital chaplain. In ministering to the dying it often occurred that a patient's family was unable to let the patient go. They urged the person to hang on, affirmed how they needed the person --- how they "could not live without" them sometimes --- and generally were unable or refused to accept the situation or to assist the patient in their need and task to embrace death with grace and peace! As a result the patients hung on, often days and sometimes weeks beyond what the hospital staff knew was normal or natural. (Sometimes they hung on for other reasons as well, sometimes in terror, but I am not speaking about those deaths here except to say once their terror was truly allayed -- something chaplains can and do assist with --- the dynamics were mainly the same as those described next.) When a patient's family could come to terms with the impending death, when they could reassure the patient they would be fine despite missing the patient, tell them they would live as fully as possible in memory of the patient, affirm that the patient's love would continue to empower them, continue to be a gift, and so forth (there were an infinite number of versions of the basic message), then, usually within hours, the patient would simply die quietly.

Often the death occurred soon after the family left the room. Many times it was when nursing staff had finished their tasks and the patient was alone for a few minutes. Again and again I saw evidence that the person was making a terribly intimate and private choice to give themselves over to death --- and perhaps more profoundly --- into the hands of the God Who transcends and conquers death. They left those they loved behind; they needed permission to do this in order to finally let go. They did not cease to love their families but something else was in front of them --- something they had, at least implicitly and often explicitly in faith, spent their entire lives coming to terms with in one way and another. (When we learn to receive life as gift, we are also learning to die and preparing for this final decision.) These patients illustrated for me the theological truth that death is a decision as they relinquished control in a final way and gave themselves over to a mystery that was unfathomable. This is part of what I mean when I say that death is a decision.

I hope this is of some help in clarifying my previous post.