If you really want to know how to live, spend time with someone who is dying well. They are dying well because they have learned to live well.
Two of my friends died this month. One younger than me. One older. Each had endured a lengthy illness. Cancer eventually claimed the one. Long-term pulmonary disease the other.
Both lived, really lived, in the face of their mortality. With courage and remarkably good cheer my younger friend underwent a series of nausea-inducing, energy-draining treatments to send the cancer into remission.
Facing an intractable, progressive condition, my older friend continued writing and editing and friend-making with all of her available, gradually diminishing strength. Her health and mobility slowly declined, but her wit and insightfulness and compassion—what you might call her spirit—never dimmed.
Within about a week of each other, both my friends entered hospice care. I will not quote them here, even though I read with care the words they wrote to many of us. Instead, I will paraphrase what I heard them say.
They loved the life they had been given. Its beauty and goodness. Its mystery and joy. Even its frustrations and disappointments. They loved especially the people who were woven into their hectic days and tender stillnesses. Into their ordinary routines and their giddy adventures.
In their final days they bid farewell to things shared with loved ones. Laughter and tears. The roar of surf tumbling toward the beach. The joy and comfort of familiar faces. The smell of a newborn’s skin.
A gentle sadness accompanied their goodbyes. But their sadness bore no hint of bitterness or resignation. Instead, I heard a wise and tender hope. It sounded to me something like this:
“I have given you all the love I have to give so that you can become all that you can be. This is what others have done for me. You have not come to the end of your path, but my mortal frame can go no farther with you. I trust that my love is immortal and that it will continue with you from here.”
If you really want to know how to live, learn the lesson that my friends taught. Their final days highlighted how they had lived all their preceding days. To live is to love. And to love is to give yourself away so that others can live.
Giving yourself away can mutate into codependency. But my friends were not anxiously seeking to please others. Neither did they deny their own desires or suppress their own sense of justice. With boundaries intact, they devoted themselves to loving this world into something more closely resembling what God wants.
At our best, we human beings are icons of the holy. That’s what I take the first chapter of Genesis to be getting at when it says that God created us in the divine image. Humans can choose to live in a way that gives others a glimpse—and nudges others toward—a world liberated by love. Jesus called that the Kingdom of Heaven.
Living this way is not automatic. A duck will just be a duck. A trout a trout. But humans can be inhumane. We learn to be human. We learn to be the image of God.
Sadly, there are all sorts of people who have apparently confused themselves with God without having a clue about God’s character. They use money, power, and privilege to gratify their own desires, to secure their social position, and to feed their own egos.
By contrast, Jesus came to show us the perfect image of God in the flesh. That’s what he meant when he identified himself as the Good Shepherd. He was teaching us by example how to be fully human. How to be icons of divine love.
Jesus crystallized the life of the Shepherd in these words: “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” (John 10:17b-18a)
These words do foreshadow Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection. But in the cross and the empty tomb Jesus sets in clearest relief the Way of his entire life. In his dying, he showed us the key to beginning to inhabit eternal life on planet earth. Living is loving. And to love is to give ourselves away so that everyone can live as God dreams that we will.
On the night before he died, Jesus says a lengthy farewell to his disciples. Over the Passover Meal, he tells them that he will no longer walk with them in the way to which they’ve grown accustomed.
Instead, he will send the Spirit to dwell within them. His love will continue to walk along with them along the Way, shaping them even more intimately and profoundly than they had experienced in days past.
And he instructs them to love. To love one another as he loved them. To lay down their lives for each other. That is how to inhabit eternal life even now.
The Way of Jesus is a paradox. By falling, we rise. By dying, we live.