Reflections, Writing Archive

Embracing The Moments Which Remind Us Of Our Own Mortality

Last month I turned 40 years old. Turning forty is considered a large milestone in most cultures. Just over a century ago, forty was considered the average age of life expectancy. But now, making it to this age is considered just the first half of one’s life journey. Yet, it still causes individuals to reflect on their life up to this mid-point while also putting into perspective what they desire to accomplish in their lives while they still can.

For myself, I have been reflecting on the amazing journey my life has been up until now. And I also see myself reflecting more deeply on what I still want to accomplish in the second half of my life, recognizing the preciousness of time more than I did when I was younger.

This is a topic which has been on my mind lately. In March, I held a workshop on the topic of “death and dying” at my church where we as participants reflected on death not just from religious, historical, and scientific perspectives, but also from our own perspectives. What followed have been many beautiful and in-depth conversations I’ve had with church members and others in my life which have been meaningful to me allowing myself see that I am not the only one who reflects on my mortality.

However, it’s not just turning forty or leading a church workshop that has caused me to reflect on my life; it’s also my health.

For the past year, I have been struggling with chronic pain. At first, my doctor diagnosed me with fibromyalgia. While I still may have this condition, a recent MRI showed bone deterioration which is a common symptom of Rheumatoid arthritis. RA is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease where the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body by mistake, causing inflammation (painful swelling) in the affected parts of the body. RA can affect anyone regardless of age, compared to osteoarthritis which tends to affect older adults. For me, I most often experience pain in my hands, feet, and back, which occurs in flares. When flares arise, it can cause me debilitating pain which may last days or weeks.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for RA. However, certain medications will help slow down the progress of the disease. Just recently, I began a new medicine which I am hoping will slow down the deterioration and address my chronic pain. I also have been trying to change my diet by switching to anti-inflammatory foods. While in the past, those with RA statistically had a shortened lifespan, those with RA can now live many years with the help of lifestyle changes and medications. And this is a privilege that I have compared to those with many other health conditions.

Regardless of whether it’s health issues or just aging, I am starting to see more clearly that I am not immune to the effects of the human experience which concludes for all of us in death.

Recently, I read an interview in the New York Times about mortality and the importance of accepting it. In it, actress Anne Hathaway talked about turning 40 and about not taking our lives for granted. In the interview, she reflected on her career and came to a moment where she realized the stress she was putting herself under from acting. In the interview, she said, “You are taking this for granted. You are taking your life for granted. You have no idea. Something could fall through the sky, and that would be lights out. So, when I find the old instincts rising, I just tell myself, you are not going to die stressed.”

A mentor of mine from seminary Is used to close his sermons by quoting Swiss poet Henri-Frédéric Amiel. Since then, I have almost always used it at the end of my sermons or at the end of worship. “Life is short, and we do not have enough time for the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So, be swift to love! And make haste to be kind.”

Even as a chaplain and as a minister, thinking about death brings me some discomfort. Recently in preparation for the workshop I led at my church, I watched an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson on the topic of death. In it, he said, “We fear death because we are born knowing only life.” Despite knowing this, we as individuals still struggle even accepting that we will someday all die.

As someone of the Christian faith, I am gaining a deeper understanding of the resurrection not only through my work as a chaplain and being with terminally ill patients and congregants, but also as I face my own health issues.  When it comes to my spiritual beliefs, I find myself more convinced that the resurrection provides reassurance to us of something beyond our being. Certainly, not everyone shares my spiritual views and I respect that. What does unite all of us, however, is that we are all mortal and unaware of what truly awaits us since we have yet to experience physical death.

For most people who have dealt with a health condition, who have survived a physical or emotional trauma, or have been able to accept that they are getting older, certain moments in life often put us back “in sync” by forcing us to recognize what is most important.

Accepting our mortality provides meaning to our lives. And whether we like it or not, all of us will be reminded of our mortality, whether through change, health issues, or just aging. While some may see these reminders as morbid thoughts that they need to deny or ignore, one could also see them as gifts. Without knowing our time is sacred and finite, we can neither appreciate love and friendship nor cherish the many wonderful relationships and experiences that we have. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many years we live. What matters most is accepting each day as an unexpected gift and embracing it to the fullest as if it were our last.