“When you go home tonight, sit in your chair and remember that your child, your husband, everyone you love, and yourself, are going to die—and that you all will die in no particular order, unpredictably. Remember this every night, and you'll soon have a spiritual life.”
“When you were born, you were crying and everyone around you was smiling. Live your life so at the end, you're the one who is smiling and everyone around you is crying.”
- Desire-Joseph Mercier
Many of you who know me are aware that I teach health classes at Albany State University. One of my favorite courses is entitled Death and Dying. I know it sounds morbid, but it is a fantastic course, one that every student in America should be required to take. Unfortunately, as far as I know we are the only school in America, or the world for that matter, that has a class listed as Death and Dying101 in the curriculum, and I am probably the only professor who is idiotic enough to teach it. It’s rather interesting, one of my greatest heroes and friend Leo Buscaglia before his death taught Love 101 at Southern Cal. He taught people how to love and live. At Albany State University, I teach people how to die. Believe it or not though both classes are very closely related because death can literally teach you how to love and live. It teaches you how precious life and loving really are. As Thornton Wilder once said, “There is a land of the living and the land of the dead, and the bridge is love…the only survival and the only meaning.”
I find it very interesting that my classes in pharmacology, sports psychology and test and measurements fill up within the first hour of the registration period. As a matter of fact, there are always students trying to get into my classes after they are closed out. My death and dying class, however, is never full. In fact, the college’s advisors tell me that they have to manipulate, coerce, and down right bully students to sign up for the course. Even with all that pressure being implemented throughout the campus, I still only get 10 or 15 students in the class as compared to a full class load of 40 students. Those are the students who initially sign up; keeping them in the class is an entirely different problem.
The first assignment that I give them is to write their own obituary. It literally freaks them out. As soon as I dismiss the class, half of them will run right over to the registration office and drop the course. They will say, “Biasiotto is sick; he wants us to think about dying.” It just goes to show you how uncomfortable people are in America with facing their own mortality. In truth, most of us don’t know how to handle death, and in fact we run from it our entire lives. Then when it comes time to deal with it, we totally “freak out.” It’s like we are carrying this dead albatross around our neck for our entire life, worrying about this dreadful thing called dying. We have to learn that death is just another aspect of life. The only way you can accept life is to accept death. We need to learn how to accept our death. That is one reason why the class is so essential.
Anywho, by the time the class really gets under way; I usually have about 8 to 10 students who are still hanging in there. The University dislikes small classes because they lose money, but I love them. It gives me a chance to get to know my students on a personal basis. I get to see them up front and personal. The small class also gives us an opportunity to visit some truly educational places that we could never go to with a full class. For instance, during the semester we visit a morgue, a crematorium, and a mortuary. If I can arrange, it we also attend an embalming and an autopsy. What the kids really take pleasure in is when we visit a convalescent home or some terminally ill patients. They interview these people, and it is truly amazing how these people who are on death’s door reach out to us with their insights about living life fully. To be honest, I learn more than I teach in this class.
At the end of the semester, I give my students a rather thought provoking assignment. Actually I stole the idea from Buscaglia’s Love class. I ask them to write an essay that is centered on the following theme: If you only had one week to live, and you could do anything you wanted to do, how would you spend that time? Occasionally I will get some really crazy answers:
“I would get stoned for the entire week with some really good____. In other words, I would blast off before I took off.”
“I would kill myself because I couldn’t take the pressure of knowing I was going to die.”
“I would make a list of all the people I hated and then take them with me.”
More often though the answers are fulfilling and heartwarming:
“I would go to confession and ask God to forgive me for all the stupid things I did in my life.”
“I would seek out all the people who have given my life meaning, and face to face tell them how much they mean to me.”
“I would tell my parents how much I appreciate everything that they have done for me and how much I love them.”
“I would tell my children how much they have enriched my life and tell them I love them.”
My response to all of these wonderful thoughts is: “Why don’t you do those things now…the suicide, murder and drug trip withstanding. What are you waiting for? Do it now!” And do you know what? Many of my students will go right home after class and do exactly that. They will call their parents, their boyfriend or their friends and tell them how much they mean to them and how much they love them. And basically that is the essence of the entire class…to get people to live in the moment, to live and love NOW… to stop sweating the small stuff…not worrying about who doesn't like them, who has more, or who's doing what. Instead, they should cherish the relationships they do have with those who love them…dream what they want to dream, go where they want to go, be what they want to be. Because like all of us, they have only one life and one chance to do all the things they want to do…and to do those things NOW! You know it is really funny we live as if we will never die and then we die as if we never lived. “Oh, God, to have reached the point of death,” says Thoreau, “only to find out you have never lived at all.”
You know we think that wealth and possessions are what are essential…big homes, lots of money, expensive things. We spend day and night chasing after beautiful cars, clothes and homes, and when we get them, we are not any more fulfilled than when we didn’t have them. And then there are my friends who will literally surrender their entire lives for the sole purpose of being successful in sports. In fact, they seem quite willing to sacrifice the very essence of life just to achieve physical greatness. In many cases, they will place a higher priority on their sport than they do on work, family, interpersonal relationships, and even on their own health. Yes! Many of these lost souls are close friends of mine. It makes me sad to see them losing so many precious moments of their life.
By making our dreams the end rather than the means, we cease to live in the moment. Consequently, we miss out on ourselves and the people and things around us. We miss out on what is happening to others and ourselves right now. Believe me the happiest of people don't necessarily have the best of everything; they just make the most of everything that comes their way. All of this material stuff is not necessary. It’s nice, but it’s not necessary.
I want to read you something that I absolutely love…it was written by Erma Bombeck. I am sure most of you are familiar with Erma Bombeck, but just in case you have been living in a cave in Tibet for the last thirty years let me fill you in on her. Bombeck is one of the greatest humorists who ever picked up a pen. She is absolutely hilarious. To my knowledge, I have read everything that she has put on paper. She is the absolute best when it comes to disseminating thought provoking ideas in a flippant and joking manner. Many nights I have found myself laughing out loud, uncontrollably, while reading her material. She is just that great!
In light of the many perversions and jokes that she has written for the explicit purpose of amusement, this composition is a little different: This was not intended to be a joke, and it's not funny; it was intended to get us thinking. She wrote it after she found out she was dying from cancer. She says, “If I had my life to live over again I would try to be less perfect next time and allow myself to make more mistakes.”
Isn’t that amazing how even distinguished and prominent people have perfection fetishes? It just goes to show you that we are all human.
She continues, “I would have gone to bed when I was sick instead of pretending the earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren't there for the day.”
There is something we all can learn. I don’t care who you are or what you do; this magnificent world of ours is going to go right on with or without you.
This part really gets to me. She says, “I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained, or the sofa faded. I would have eaten the popcorn in the 'good' living room and worried much less about the dirt when someone wanted to light a fire in the fireplace. I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed. I would have sat on the lawn with my grass stains. I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage. I would never have bought anything just because it was practical, wouldn't show soil, or was guaranteed to last a lifetime.”
This is exactly what we are talking about here. In other words, she would have just let go and lived more. I mean really lived her life…not worried about the small stuff…really got in to living life fully. And that’s the real reality, to be in touch. Like I said, the time to live your life is NOW!
This is the part that I really love though because she talks about reaching out to others, putting life in its real perspective. “I would have talked less and listened more.” She says, “I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth. Instead of wishing away 9 months of pregnancy I'd have cherished every moment and realized that the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.
When my kids kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, "Later. Now go get washed up for dinner." There would have been more "I love you's." More "I'm sorry's." “But mostly” she concludes, “given another shot at life, I would seize every minute...look at it and really see it...live it...and never give it back.
Isn’t that great!
You know there is so much to experience in life, and we are satisfied with so little. Put a stop to that type of apathy this very moment. Tell yourself that you are going to start experiencing life the way God intended you to experience it. Come into contact with all of God’s gifts. Experience all the splendor around you; look at the stars, the sky the ocean; feel the warmth of the sun, the splendor of a light breeze, and the freshness of a cool day…live it all. Smell the fragrance of earth; hear the exuberance of sounds; feel the tranquility of silence; be in touch with the brilliance of humanity. Start feeling things…the celebration of pleasure, the merriment of joy, the sadness of disappointment and sorrow and the discontent of loneliness and depression…is a part of it all. Reach out and touch the people you love; be aware of yourself, your transformations, your growth, and your being. There is just so much to experience and just so little time to experience it. Don’t miss any of it. Start living, and do it NOW!
I remember reading that a woman once asked Carlos Castaneda how to achieve a spiritual life. He said “when you go home tonight, sit in your chair and remember that your child, your husband, everyone you love, and yourself, are going to die—and that you all will die in no particular order, unpredictably. Remember this every night,” Castaneda said, “and you'll soon have a spiritual life.”
As Castaneda suggest, live every moment as if it is your last. When you are with someone, try to envision that it will be the last meeting you will ever have with that person. When you realize that this very moment is all you have for certain, you will find ways to make that moment the best moment possible. And that is when you will really start living.
Yours in Strength,