Dying Well, Part 3

Dying Well, Part 3

The finality of death is meant to challenge us to decision, the decision to be fully present now, and so begin eternal life. For eternality rightly understood is not the perpetuation of time, on and on, but rather the overcoming of time by the now which does not pass away. 

-Brother David Steinl-Rast[1]

At its essence (and in my opinion), dying well is dying contented. We cannot die well if we feel we have been cheated in life, if we believe others treated us poorly, or if we think we were prevented from blossoming into our full potential by circumstances beyond our control or by the actions or inactions of others. Many people believe attaining contentment is not within their span of control. They believe the few contented people they know were lucky in some or many ways. And the contented people they know would probably agree: Yes, they have been fortunate in their lives. What is missing in the minds of our discontented sisters and brothers is the gratitude contented folks feel for what they have been given, whatever they may have been given. In other words, given the identical circumstances that discontented folks loathe, contented folks would still find their way to contentment. Unfortunately, those who are discontented today are not likely to die well unless and until they learn that contentment is not about what does or does not happen to us but is about how we react to what does or does not happen to us. Do we react with gratitude, finding the blessings always present in every occurrence, or do we react with resentment, believing that life has used us as its punching bag once again?

The character Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh book series is a classic personification of discontent. Whatever happens to him is seen as another slap in the face from the cosmic forces aligned against his happiness. He expects things to turn out poorly and the universe seems always to oblige. He is blind to the unconditional love, acceptance, and companionship bestowed upon him by his friends because his attention is always focused out of the present moment onto his sad past and dismal future. I suspect the sad truth is that if we expect our tomorrows on earth to be as bad or worse than our todays or yesterdays, then we will experience our afterlife as being as bad or worse than our life on earth – at least, that is, until we learn that the source of our discontent is internal and not external.

Fortunately for us, gratitude and contentment are perspectives anyone can develop at any time in their life. They must simply decide to do so. It is firmly within our power to develop and maintain a blessings-oriented attitude. In the context of preparing to die well, finding contentment may be our number one assignment in life. It is the key to achieving a sense of completion or closure, not only as we end each day, but as we prepare to end our lives on earth. It is also the key to being fully present to the now. One of my teachers and mentors, James Finley, says that death should not bring annihilation but consummation — not obliteration but completion. We cannot attain completeness in this phase of life as long as we retain scores to be settled or believe anything about our lives was not good enough.

Contentment is a prerequisite for completion. Neither equates to nor requires perfection, at least not according to our limited and misleading understanding of perfection. As he was dying on the cross, Jesus’ final words were “It is finished” (John 19:30). The earthly phase of his life was complete. We know from his post-death appearances that he was not annihilated. Rather, his earthly existence was consummated. He did not retain grudges against those who tortured and murdered him. He was able to pass into the afterlife freely and unencumbered. In doing so, he modeled dying well for us. None of us are likely to suffer the degrees of injustice, humiliation, or pain he endured, but through it all he demonstrated the importance of being grateful, contented, present, and complete in whatever life circumstances we have been given.

Before we end our days on earth we can develop an attitude of contentment; we can seek and acknowledge the better natures of everyone we meet, including and especially ourselves; we can freely and generously exchange love and forgiveness. We can give ourselves over completely to the now, which in the words of Brother David Steinl-Rast, does not pass away. Such a life requires relentless optimism, a bit of faith, and a short memory. May it be so.

This is the 59th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

[1] Brother David Steinl-Rast, Parabola, Vol. 2, No.1: “Death,” Winter 1977.

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