Life has a way of leading us to unexpected places. As for me, back when I was a hospice physician making house calls to care for the dying patients on our service I never dreamed I would one day write a book about that experience. I didn’t know that my own life would be profoundly changed by listening to the stories of those patients and learning from them the lessons that were being revealed as they drew closer and closer to death. But that is exactly what happened.
One day a patient named Ted told me that he had only just begun to understand “what really matters” in life. He bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t pass along that wisdom to anyone else because he would be gone from this life in a few weeks. So I made a promise that day to remember Ted’s story and share it with others.
From that point on I began to recognize that many of my dying patients seemed to be learning lessons in their final days that totally changed the way they looked at life. For Ted the lesson was Love: he came to see that Love was far more important than all the wealth, status and possessions he had accumulated during his lifetime. For Greg, a young man dying of malignant melanoma, the lesson was Forgiveness as he reunited with his estranged brothers and all three of them healed years of pain and anger during the last weeks of Greg’s life.
At first I saw these lessons as a step-by-step guide for how to approach death and I shared them with other dying patients who were struggling to make sense of what was happening to them. But eventually I realized that the way I lived my own life each day was being transformed by the stories I was gathering. That’s when it dawned on me that these were really the lessons of living and they could be learned at any time during life, not just in the final days.
Over the remaining years of my hospice career many other patients came with stories that added to my understanding of “what really matters.” I learned to live in the Present Moment from Ralph, a previously homeless alcoholic who discovered a talent for drawing pictures after being told he would soon die of kidney cancer. And from Andy, who lost half his face to cancer, I was shown how to Surrender to whatever difficulties life brings along the way.
As the story of my own life unfolded over time I was given opportunities to not only learn but to actually live each one of these lessons that I had been taught – all in preparation for one day writing about them in my book. But the biggest awakening came when I met Lorraine, a writer herself who was dying of breast cancer. She had been a spiritual seeker all her life who had already been living “what really matters” for many years. Lorraine showed me the paradox that Death itself is the path to Life and that mortality is our greatest gift.
In an instant my mind was blown open and my vision expanded to the largest view possible: the more fully I accept my death, the more fully I will be alive. When I no longer fear my death then I will no longer fear my life. Suddenly I could see everything through new eyes. Death was teaching me a state of fearlessness that allowed me to move forward in areas of my life where I had been stuck and stagnant before.
As I contemplate the dire condition of our world today with a pandemic, racial strife, economic disaster, environmental degradation, and political unrest, I recognize that fearlessness is the only thing that can help us move forward through these crises. We must be fearless in order to make the best choices for the future, to stand up to hatred and to rid ourselves of outmoded biases and institutions that no longer serve our growth.
When time and energy are at a premium they must not be squandered on anything other than what really matters. The time has arrived for each of us to set aside our foolish and petty grievances and allow our false illusions to fall apart so that something new can emerge and grow. All the disasters on this planet are arising simultaneously with perfect timing to bring us to this point of transformation. If Death has taught us anything let it be that we cannot wait; the time for change is now.
Life has a way of leading us to unexpected places.
In my case, Life led me to Death and back again with a powerful knowledge of what really matters. And that changed everything for me.
Where is Life leading you and what changes are you willing to allow? Answer that question carefully, for it is the change that takes place in you that will bring about the change the world needs in order to survive. Let your fearlessness guide your choices.
Karen Wyatt, MD is a family physician who has spent much of her 25 year career as a hospice medical director, caring for dying patients in their homes. The author of 7 Lessons for Living from the Dying: How to Nurture What Really Matters and The Tao of Death, Dr. Wyatt has lectured and written extensively on end-of-life issues with an emphasis on the spiritual aspect of illness and dying. karenwyattmd.com.