I have had several accidents which easily could have killed me. When I was ten years old, I was hit by a car that the driver admitted was going 60 mph. I ran right out in front of him; he didn’t have a chance to avoid me on that gravel road. Yes, I was severely injured and lost some teeth (my head hit the hood of the car), but I survived. Then, when I was 41, I was run over by a car that I tried to jump into while it was in motion. Either of these events could have easily killed me; both were entirely my fault and my stupidity.
I felt immortal when young. But the second time, while in shock riding to the hospital in the ambulance, the truth slowly seeped into my deep senses… ”I could have died.” It was then, for the first time, that I realized I was mortal. My mother died shortly after that following a battle with cancer, and this truth was affirmed in my soul…”I am mortal. I, too, will die.”
I think it was then I began to prepare for my own death. I accepted the fact that life would go on without me. Although my family would miss me like I still miss my mother, everyone would go on with their lives. I began to ask myself what I wanted to accomplish with my life before I died and began to pursue these goals. I continue to soberly ask this of myself.
As a follower of Christ, if there is one thing I know, it is that we are all going to die. But to die physically means to live ultimately. It is what Paul writes to some friends in Philippi,
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”Philippians 1.21-24
Then he writes to the church in Rome,
“If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”Romans 14.8
If anyone lived their life in light of eternity, certainly Paul did.
Atul Gawande is a surgeon who struggles with mortality, like most doctors and patients. His excellent book, Being Mortal, describes doctors’ struggles in helping their patients embrace their mortality. We are all going to die. As followers of Christ, we surely know this. And we have the confidence that this is not the end, so we can, as Paul, “face it with a grin.”
Why do so many people take such extreme measures to extend life when as Christians we are going to a better place? Gawande does an excellent job of helping individuals prepare for their own or another’s death. Gawande is not a Christian, but he highlights why doctors refuse to talk about a patient’s impending death and why patients don’t want their doctors to do so. It is like some unspoken covenant between the doctor and the patient.
He eventually became a proponent of palliative care which allows for quality and quantity of life, according to research from several studies. And it does so with a much more informed, intentional, and inexpensive approach to our mortality.
Gawande identifies four crucial questions to ask yourself and others close to you in life and as you face life-altering circumstances, like aging, an accident, or a life-threatening disease:
- What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
- What are your fears and what are your hopes?
- What tradeoffs are you willing to make or not willing to make?
- What is the course of action that best serves this understanding?
My father is almost 94 and my mother died at 68. I will be 68 this month. I may die soon or live another 30 years; this is in God’s hands. I will serve His desires daily regardless of how long I have to live. These questions have enlightened how I want to interact with those closest to me while yet on this earth.