My cancer diagnosis has made me see both life and death differently. I have revisited some long-neglected ideas and introduced very many new ones.
Since recovering from my Whipple procedure, I have been re-attracted to some Buddhist perspectives as well as greatly intensifying my interests in my Christian roots. The timing of all of this is, of course, not remotely coincidental. As I have said here many times before, I have felt God walking with me throughout my recovery. I know that he was with me even before, always. His presence has been more tangible, more easily recognizable though these days. Blessed are those who are able to see him all around them as a matter of course – in a child's sweet smile, in an anonymous kind act, in scoring a choice parking spot, in a thirsty buzzing bee, or a serendipitous phone call.
The appeal of the Buddhist philosophy for me now and throughout my life is in the letting go. (Not that this is absent in Christianity. It is the fundamental beauty of having faith and trusting in God. A challenge easier said than done.) In Buddhism, there is no follow-on to the acceptance – no further relationship with the divine. It is "easier" in a way; it doesn't ask any more (than that not insignificant thing) of you. My focus has been on how the day-to-day letting go would help me to have less stress in my life. It was meant to be just one life change contributing to my avoidance of the cancer returning. In general, my belief is that less stress equals a lower likelihood of a cancer replay.
The two life philosophies also have useful parallels for me when it comes to understanding/accepting death. A terrific Christian theologian, Marcus Borg, wrote – "Buddhist 'letting go' and Christian 'dying' are similar processes. Dying is the ultimate 'letting go' – of the world and one's self. The world as center of one's identify and security and the self as the center of one's preoccupation pass away. This 'letting go' is liberation from an old way of being and resurrection into a new way of being. There is thus a Buddhist 'born again' as well as a Christian 'liberation through enlightenment' experience." The parallel is further demonstrated in the words of these two great teachers. Jesus said (from Mark 8:35) "Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will save it." Similarly, attributed to the Buddha is the following – "With the relinquishing of all thought and egotism, the enlightened one is liberated through not clinging."
Another input to which I have exposed myself that has helped me to fear death a little less has been a book called "Closer to the Light". In brief, my "learning from the near-death experience of children" has been that there is actually a body of anecdotal evidence that supports many of our beliefs about what happens to us upon our death. Leaving my family and loved ones prematurely would be indescribably sad – but I am feeling a little more solace considering the world of love that awaits us on the other side.
Although this comes as a bit of Christian blasphemy, I have mostly chosen not to let it matter to me what awaits us after death. If I am put in the ground and my body becomes food for insects – then so be it. It has never been the promise of heaven that has motivated me to "be good". I like the notion that Jesus died for our sins and offers us everlasting life – but even if it were not to be so, his life and teachings still offer us infinite wisdom and a supreme example. Ultimately, the belief in an ideal and compassionate morality may be more important than how close to the truth we are.
Once again, I've learned that life and death are just as we have been taught to believe – only even more so! Both are full of mystery. Sometimes we just need to get a little faith boost from somewhere to remind us of all that we already know.