We are here.
We are here.
We are here.
We are here.
I am astonished
says Saint Paul,
I am astonished
that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ
and are turning to a different gospel
On the advice of several friends – Grace’s own Corbet and Myra Clark being among them – I just finished reading Atul Gawande’s new book, Being Mortal. In addition to being an author, Gawande is a surgeon, a professor, a father of three small children, and a chairman of a not-for-profit devoted to making surgery safer around the world. When you read his biography, you have the impression that he sleeps about once every two weeks. While Gawande’s earlier books focused on his work in the operating theatre, his subject in Being Mortal is aging, the last few years of our lives, and dying.
Gawande begins Being Mortal with the thesis that, because our culture’s go-to strategy around aging is to simply deny that we might ever get old or become infirm – let alone die – we are woefully unprepared when we have to face some or all of these realities. (And thanks to modern medicine’s ability to prolong our lives even in the face of serious illness and injury, there is a good likelihood that all of us will have a time of significant time of infirmity in our final months or years.) Much as when you were a student getting ready for the final exam, therefore, it turns out that “I’d prefer not to think about that” is a remarkably ineffective approach to life.
The good news, Gawande says, is that when we do prepare for the last years of our lives – for instance, by doing something as simple as talking with our loved ones and our doctors about our wishes for the kind of interventions that we would like to have should we become faced with serious cognitive or physical limitations – our final years can be a rich time, a time full of meaning, a time full of blessings.
Of the several potential blessings of being old that Being Mortal encounters, one of them has particularly caught my attention. This blessing is what Gawande calls a narrowing of focus. So, when you have the sense that the end of your life is within sight, you automatically begin to iris down on the things that really matter to you: spending time with friends and family, with the people whom you love; making peace with God; nurturing a context in which you are able to look at your life and say that it is complete, in which you know that you have said and done the things that you needed to say and do. Contrast this time of narrowing with our younger years when our goal is to expand: to expand our achievements, to expand our social networks, to expand our reservoirs of money and status and stuff.
Fascinatingly – perhaps surprisingly, I’ll leave you to decide – this time of narrowing tends to actually a pretty happy time in people’s lives. You might guess that acknowledging that you are in the final five years of your life would be a huge drag on your emotions and energy. But, by and large, quite the opposite of true. The end of life, Gawande and his colleagues have found, is a time when folks tend to be less anxious, less depressed, less angry. Gawande says that this narrowing of focus and the resultant discovery – or rediscovery – of joy, comes as we choose to live for now rather than for the future, as we devote our time to being rather than to doing.
There are at least two reasons that I am fascinated with this time of being and its surprising joy. The first is that the blessing of a narrowed focus, while most common in the elderly, isn’t actually something that you have to be old in order to experience. Drawing on the work of a researcher by the name of Laura Carstensen, Gawande argues that what we might call a “being-oriented life” doesn’t flow out of the generational or cultural sensibilities of the elderly, it’s not something that you learned, in other words, by being born in a certain era. And nor is it a consequence of being old in and of itself. Rather, it is a consequence of something on which the elderly simply have a head start: waking up to the reality that our time on this earth is limited.
What Carstensen found in her research is that, whenever we notice that the time left to us is finite and uncertain, no mater our age, we narrow, we shift away from having, getting, and doing and towards being. Carstensen spoke, for instance, with young men dying of HIV/AIDS. And she found that these men’s preferences for how they spent their time were essentially identical to the preferences of the elderly. They wanted time with friends now, they wanted love and wholeness now. In another study, this one based around hypothetical questions, Carstensen asked people of all ages how they would like to spend an hour of their time. And she found significant discrepancies between young and old. But when she told the people answering her question to imagine that they were about to move far away, the age discrepancies disappeared.
As Gawande puts it, there is a chasm of perspective between those who have to contend with life’s fragility and those who don’t.
The second thing that caught my attention about this time of narrowing is that it sounds for all the world like a spiritual practice. During high school, I remember being fascinated with spiritual artwork called the Memento Mori, the remembrance of death. Popular over several centuries spanning the midway mark of the past millennium, Memento Mori were works of art – so, sculptures and paintings – which sough to remind the viewer of her or his mortality. I remember one painting quite vividly that featured a rotund merchant, fat with the success of the world, being dragged off to death by a skeleton. Some memento mori even anticipate surrealism, so that an ivory carving will be half-living and half decaying into skeletal remains. Like the ashes that begin Lent every year, one of the principal functions of the Memento Mori is to say:
Don’t forget that you are going to die. You don’t know the time or the hour.
Don’t forget to live now.
Similar to the Memento Mori is the practice of writing an imaginary obituary for yourself. Imagine, this practice says, that your life is over. Imagine that the people who knew you and, perhaps, who loved you, are looking back on your life and telling its story. What story do you want them to tell? That practice says:
Pretend that the time left to you in your life is finite and uncertain.
And then it goes on:
I’m going to let you in on a secret. The time left to you in your life is finite and uncertain.
Odds are good that a practices like these are going to narrow your focus.
So. It is the third week of the Season of Pentecost. And we are beginning a series of Sundays during which we are reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul gets his letter started on what can only be called an explosive note – we can imagine him turning red in the face as he penned these words or as he spoke them to the scribe who took dictation for him.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel!
Now, there are a number of different schools or strategies for reading Galatians, for figuring out what Paul’s thesis might be in his letter, what it is that he finds so objectionable and, conversely, what it is that he finds so good and so important. Indeed, some of the most exciting Biblical scholarship right now is focused on this book, and we may encounter some of that scholarship in the coming weeks. Today, however, what I would like to do with you is to use Atul Gawande’s reflections on narrowing as a means of exploring Paul. In particular, I want to ask:
For you and me in 2016, what is the different Gospel that keeps us from narrowing down to what matters?
I suspect that all of us will have a somewhat different answer to that last question. But I suspect as well that what all of our answers have in common is that they are built out of some combination of denial and addiction. Denial, as I have said already during conversation this morning, that finitude is part of our reality, that aging and limitation and death might actually be something that happens to people like us. And addiction – well, to what? Sometimes to booze, yes. Sometimes to other drugs. But just as often our addictions are to anger, to being right, to having prestige and power and money and stuff, to consumerism, to having and getting and doing.
I want to suggest that there is some really good news is Atul Gawande’s book, there is some really good news about you and me being mortal. Remember what Gawande and Laura Carstensen discovered: it is in that irised out place when we pretend that our time is unlimited that we are most anxious, most depressed, most angry. By contrast, when we acknowledge the unwelcome news that our lives are finite and uncertain, when we stop denying, we automatically narrow down to what matters. We narrow down to the Gospel. We remember the beautiful urgency of being alive. In spite of everything, we discover the freedom and joy and possibility and agency that God wants for you and for me.
This life is a fleeting, beautiful gift. But for now:
We are here.