The moments when we recognize the brevity of life

Recently I learned that my friend Hester had been suddenly diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.  She had been focused on daily living, her long road stretching out to the horizon, attending to friends, creativity, work, and related pleasures and struggles.  Within days, her life abruptly made a hairpin turn into a new path, narrow and poorly lit, and short.  One week after I spoke to her, she died.

It is at these times that the veil, which protects us from certain knowledge of our impermanence, draws back and we glimpse the evanescence of all life.  This happens rarely for most of us, and we usually focus our attention on the events and circumstances of our lives as if we will always be living, here on this Earth.  Younger people, especially, tend to feel personally immortal, even when they know people who have died.  At a certain age, that veil becomes thinner, and somewhat frayed.  We have family and friends who have life-threatening illness, or who have died.  The numbers increase with our own age.  It becomes easier to imagine “that could be me.”

Still, the veil is there, even if thinner, and those moments when we recognize the brevity of life disappear back under the veil.

How do we live life fully, completely, inhabiting each moment we are granted?  In those moments when the veil is drawn aside, can we still live in the present?  Is it possible to do so despite knowledge of what awaits us at the end?   Or is the veil necessary, like blinders, to keep us focused in the present?  Is this a universal phenomenon, or just a product of our own culture, which keeps illness and death at a distance, and encourages everyone to hold on to the appearance of youth?

Certainly there are other cultures in which illness and death are regarded as part of life in a different way from our own, in which people are cared for at home among family of all ages.  Also, there are places where death comes more frequently to people at a younger age, because of infectious diseases, hunger, and war.  In these circumstances, there may be very little left of the protective veil.

Though the many religions and spiritual traditions of our world offer guidance, ultimately we each find our own way to co-exist with these questions.  Like many of us, I spend most of my time focused on the details rather than the overview.  I attend to my family, do my exercises, see my patients, care for our pets, plan and cook dinners, go out with my husband, my attention directed to the events carefully listed, by color and category, on my phone calendar.

However, my veil has thinned, and I know that, as I go through my day of details, my life, too, could change suddenly and irrevocably.  This awareness brings so much discomfort that I immediately turn away into mindfulness practice, name it “anxiety,” and return my attention, not to my breath, but back to the specifics of daily life.

Still, I find my mind meandering at odd times, wondering about meaning.  What are humans here for?  Why does each life seems so expansive, and yet so brief?    When people die, how can they suddenly not be here?  What am I here for?

I sometimes see time stretching in a line from the past to the future, or not in a line at all, with everything happening, in some way, simultaneously, and all life connected into a vast web.  In some way, everyone who was ever here, is still here.   In some way, it is life itself that is the meaning.

Danielle Rosenman is a former family physician who blogs at 5 Cents: The Doctor is In.

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  • OldRedned

    My enlightenment came when I was fortunate enough to watch Carl Sagan’s wonderful television series called ‘Cosmos’. The ‘aha moment’ came when Carl Sagan explained how chemical elements came about, how the ‘Big Bang’ produced atoms of hydrogen and helium, which condensed under gravity to form galaxies and stars. He then went on to explain how a star makes the lighter elements, oxygen, carbon calcium and so on, from nuclear fusion, until the element Iron was reached. Then, because Iron can produces no nuclear energy, the star collapses under gravity and in the cataclysmic explosion that follows, makes all the remaining elements up to Uranium. Where do we come into all this? Well every part of our body is made from these atoms. The oxygen in our blood, the carbon in our DNA, the calcium in our bones and so on. Every atom within us comes originally from the stars. We are made of star-stuff. The Universe lives within us all.

    What becomes of us after death? You can take your choice. Religions offer their own explanations and no doubt give comfort to their believers. However, there is a far more concrete and irrefutable explanation. The atoms that physically make us what we are in this lifetime are simply recycled after our death. Nothing is lost. Nothing is destroyed. Our body at the molecular level is returned back to the system, let’s call it Nature, and taken up again to make other living orgasms. Truly, we can and do come back within a tree or a mouse or, of course, within another human – a new born baby. In this very real sense, we are all eternal and will ‘live’ as long as the Universe exists.

  • boucains

    Living a Death Delayed

    In death delayed, there is a

    That healer and the Church unite

    To fight that which cannot be seen

    That hateth life and body’s soul

    For they which seek the body’s cure

    Have not a goal nor notion laid

    Unless the soul which suffers great

    Exists and offers that when paid

    Shows skill and Providence combined

    To heal and so restore the whole

    Which evil’s bid doth do no more

    But shouts God’s grace for evermore

    © 2011 John P. Cain All Rights Reserved

  • Molly_Rn

    Working in ICU/CCU is a lesson in life.
    You understand that there are no medals or longevity for being a good person.
    You are dealt your cards and you have to play them the best you can with no guarantees,
    no rewards, no punishment, just reality. Life is a crap shoot.

  • StephenModesto

    Thank you for sharing a personal moment of self-reflctive self disclosure.These certainly are the scenes behind the veils of health care which are so often and easily overlooked in meeting and maintaining the mechanics of `routines’.
    ……And, sorry Molly_RN, I did not mean to step on your comment. I just hit the wrong button.

  • Natasha Deonarain, MD, MBA

    The details of life is what we all turn to, struggling to keep our heads above water, put food on the table, pay the bills, get a little exercise in before it’s lights out. On the battlefield in the Bhagavad Ghita, the ancient Hindu text, Arjuna questions Krishna about battling his brothers and receives this reply, “…your sorrow is sheer delusion/Wise men do not grieve/For the dead or for the living.” What then is our duty in this brief existence? To withdraw into the details of daily moments, or to “stand up, Arjuna; steady your mind to fight.” What then is duty, and what then is the bigger picture? Carl Sagan says it best, “This is the first moment in the history of our planet when any species, by its on voluntary actions, has become a danger to itself – as well as to vast numbers of others. Let me count the ways….” What then is our duty?

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