I will not die an unlived life. I will not live in fear. –Dawna Markova
Over the summer, I was asked if I would be willing to teach a Sunday School class at my church on grief and loss. I agreed without any hesitation. When I recently sat down with the pastor, I realized that she had titled the class, “Living and Dying Well.” I had been thinking a lot about resources for loss, but the change in name reoriented me; now I am pondering what it means to live well. I could probably change the name of the class, but I’ve always loved a good challenge and it seems to me that they’re equally important and equally difficult discussions in the Western world.
When I think of living well, I think of laughter, good meals, a nice bottle of wine, practicing resurrection, community that shapes and sustains. But I wanted to pose this question to each of you, as well. As you go about your daily lives, whatever your goals and whatever your place in the formal economy, what does it mean to live well? How does it incarnate itself for you?
weighed by two things — footprints and fingerprints.
By footprints, I mean an individuals impact on the health and wellbeing of the planet and, consequentially, those who still remain on it. It is more than just measuring a person’s “carbon imprint”, i.e. sustainability – how much resources did they use up in their short life? Was it more than their fair share?
Although sustainability is an important aspect, footprints also include the idea of “legacy.” Think of a fossilized footprint, a dinosaur bone, ancient ruins, or historical artifacts. Is there something so unique and mysterious about a persons legacy that generations from now people will passionately study it, analysis it, and find it both educational and inspirational?
By fingerprints, I mean an individuals impact on others. Did a person live life in such a way that their DNA (personality, worldview, ideas, and influence) can be found in other people? Think of a CSI investigator looking for evidence that a certain individual was at the scene of a crime. In this case, the investigator is looking for evidence that a certain individual was at the scene of a life — their fingerprints are all over the person in question and those prints have made a deep, lasting, and positive impact.
Thanks for asking the question. I hope it generates reflective responses.
A life that is well-lived in day-to-day interactions involves a centered confidence that I have something important to contribute to the world, and a compassionate belief that everyone else does too.
A person with a healthy sense of self accepts her need of others, and revels in community, while also courageously drawing the line when others treat her in soul-denying ways.
Personal insecurity (psychological-I’m not talking about insecure physical conditions) produces obnoxious, and even destructive, behaviors. One must attend to one’s own inner wholeness in order to live life abundantly/well.
Great question, Lora. I want to be there for your lesson! My first thought, for whatever it’s worth, is that the New Testament seems to hold together both aspects–a good life and a good death–as one and the same thing. A good life is one in which “I die every day,” as Paul says, one in which I am daily being crucified with Christ. So just as Christ submitted to all the vicissitudes of human life–the struggle to love and be loved, the struggle for proper confidence and hope–and “learned obedience through what he suffered,” so a life of ours lived to God means longsuffering and humility and hope even amid our doubt and fear. I don’t know how to connect that to grief, though. Maybe it at least points toward the possibility that grief and hope don’t have to contradict each other, or that even if they do, that contradiction is somehow fruitful.
For me, to live well means to be present for others.
Being present means that I am not distracted by other concerns, expectations or by various technologies, but I am with the person who is in front of me.
Being for others means that I am not using the other for my own gain or well-being, but I am just thinking of their need and how I can best meet their need.
And in this, I meet my own needs. I am not just forgetting myself, but I am living my life through being there for the other and the One who is the Most Other. In this, I find my health and satisfaction, not because I sought my own health or my own satisfaction, but due to God’s having made me that the more I give, the more I receive.
I do this in the lives of others, and in their deaths. In my context, it means that even when I contact a recent homeless person’s family about thier death and they don’t want to talk about him, I will do what I can to offer him the respect of remembering him, of talking about him, of crying for the loss.
Of course, this is as much a goal as a lifestyle. There are still so many times that I obtain my satisfaction selfishly, for the sole intent of satisfying my needs. But it is so much more nourishing for me to cook a stew to share than a hamburger for myself alone. This as I am considering eating a candy bar in the solitude of my office… ah, well. I try.
I’ve been a mostly quiet reader here for a while, and often mull over posts, but I guess I can try writing something now.
Thank you for writing this post. I work as a nurse in an ICU, and it has been good to keep your questions in mind during the last week as I go about my work.
Where I work, questions about living and dying well are a daily business. All of the patients I deal with are facing–just like everyone else I suppose– the very basic question of how they will live before they die. By the time they become my patient, those questions have taken on a certain urgency and as often as not have to be made by loved ones.
I confess that everyday, silently, I thank family and patients who decide not to run and hide from their death at any cost. Sometimes I deal with families who have decided that they cannot let their loved one pass and so with time their loved one becomes a person far removed from whatever happiness and contentment that person had achieved in his or her life. In their fear of death, some of these patients need to surround themselves with so many machines that all the energy that once drove a vibrant life is taken up with just keeping a heart beating and eyes open. I cannot make a decision about living and dying for these people, but watching them does make me ever so mindful of how I might be tempted to surround myself with those earthly things that create the illusion of staving off death. Even though you asked what it means to live well, I guess for me, living well means that life eclipses death–that death will not delete the good we do here.
Ah well, this all sounds so dramatic. I think I like better your bit about drinking the wine and eating good food.
Thanks to all of you for your thoughts! Brian, I had been thinking of “Do this and you will live,” but I hadn’t considered Paul’s corollary. JLS, thanks for sharing your experience–I think we’ll probably end up focusing more on dying well this quarter and living well (mental wellness, especially) in the spring quarter. I’ve been digging up resources for green and low-cost funerals, advanced directives and medical power-of-attorney forms, and how to talk with family members about death. As one of my professors once said, “Death is a part of life and that’s what we do here; we talk about life.”
To be able to be here. Trully. Body and mind.
To be who I am.