Advice on living and dying

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Feb. 26, 2004

Dear Leslie,

Back when our beagle, Alvie, first appeared at our door, scarred and wheezing, a vet told us he was dying from the damage caused by heart worms. DC was terribly upset until her mother gave her a good piece of advice.

Alvie doesn't know he's dying, her mother said. He enjoys every day he's alive, and you should, too.

That was two years and four months ago.

This month, Cape Girardeans have been participating in a community-wide read of "Tuesdays with Morrie," a book that offers good advice about living from a man who is dying from Lou Gehrig's Disease, today more commonly called ALS.

My first reaction to the book was that it contained no particularly profound insights into life and death. It seemed too plain spoken, too lacking in revelation.

For example: "So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half asleep even when they are busy doing things they think are important. This is the product of chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning."

Who doesn't know that? But at DC's prodding I had to admit I'm not fully living up to that ideal.

This week a letter arrived from a woman who dislikes "Tuesdays with Morrie" because, she says, it irresponsibly soft-pedals the horrific effects the disease has on the victim and their family. She had watched a dear friend slowly succumb to ALS and compared it to "watching helplessly as a lion eats a beloved relative alive."

But she added that "Tuesdays with Morrie" was one of the books her friend read from until she eventually became too mentally disoriented to read. She thinks the book must have provided her friend some solace.

We're all going to die, but most of us live as if we don't believe it.

"Every day," Morrie says, "have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, 'Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be? Is today the day I die?'"

As a young reporter I was assigned to write a story about training hospice volunteers. I listened and watched but was left wondering why anyone would want to spend their spare time with people who are dying. I was too scared of death and too young to understand.

"Tuesdays with Morrie" recognizes that how we die is important, too.

In "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," the mythologist Joseph Campbell says, "The hero would be no hero if death held for him any terror; the first condition is reconciliation with the grave."

Every spiritual tradition teaches that we're immortal, but most of us act as if we don't believe it. We don't live as if our lives have meaning, as if we are here for a sacred purpose: To fulfill the yearnings of our soul.

We want to separate life from death, but they are different parts of the same experience, like day and night. Night prepares us for the day.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is managing editor for the Southeast Missourian.

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