You may know that I’ve worked as a hospice social worker. It means I’ve been called everything from a saint to the Grim Reaper. And the most common social response to the question, “Carolyn, what do you do?” is this look of sucking on a lemon and something like “Ewww, that’s a horrible job.” Pushing etiquette aside, I (usually) smile and try to keep from rolling my eyes too obviously.
It happened this past summer on vacation in Northern Wisconsin. First, for those of you outside the Midwest, about half of Chicago’s population goes to Northern Wisconsin to get away, and it’s common to run into people from the Land of Lincoln in the northwoods of America’s Dairyland. In this instance, I was getting reacquainted with a woman who lives about 5 miles away from my home in Chicago. We indulged in typical small talk: how old are your kids now, do you work outside the home, what do you do for a living. After my turn, she offered the same response, “Ewww, that’s got to be an awful job.” I laughed, because she works in my former career of public relations. Unlike me, she is good at it and actually enjoys the work. I reminded her that I used to do what she does, and I said, “You couldn’t pay me enough to do what you do.” We had a good laugh and appreciated that it takes different people to make our world rich and varied in perspective and gifts.
Why is hospice work considered so awful for so many? I’d bet it’s because not many people want to be reminded of their own mortality. And really, I don’t, either. True, the people I serve have a limited time on earth, people for whom experts (doctors) have predicted that their lives will be cut short due to a health issue. And really, when you look at it, we’re all a heartbeat away from Heaven.
I’m not here to sell you on hospice, although it can be excellent care for many people. I find hospice patients to be at their most authentic, warts and all, because they are living where the rubber hits the road, and for most of them, they’re face-to-face with what we all fear, our own mortality.
It sucks to have to face this. The first time we come in contact with our mortality, well, that step is a doozy. Mine was a cancer diagnosis in my mid-’30’s (I’m fine, now, thank you very much). For others it’s a bad accident or the death of a sibling, parent or child.
Intellectually we know we’re not going to live forever. The Grand Lie we tell ourselves is that we have longer on earth than we really do. And, in truth, everyone I’ve worked with (hundreds, if not thousands, of patients) wants to live, no matter how old. Whether they’re 19 or 90, they feel the same way. They may be tired or they may be depressed because they’re sick and their bodies are falling apart, but they don’t want to die. Like Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford commencement speech, “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to Heaven don’t want to die to get there.”
I believe what we’re really afraid of, at our core, is losing what we know and whom we love. Of becoming irrelevant. That we may not get to finish everything we “need” to. That it really doesn’t matter.
All respect to Mr. Jobs, I also believe we can still live each moment fully without putting our own deaths front and center.
If courage is a response to fear, then I encourage you, after your initial fright, to exercise your courage, even if it’s a little bit for now. Commit to living in the present moment, even if it’s just for 5 minutes–or 5 seconds–today. Hug your kid, your spouse, your mom or dad. Forgive your enemy and the ones who hurt you, and give them a hug if you can. Stand in your boss’s shoes. Be grateful for your life, however long or short it turns out to be. Like the trees of spring, summer, autumn and winter, stand strong, and be glorious through all external circumstances.
While this won’t defer the inevitable, it can transcend the darkness of death and be a reminder that the sun shines even behind the clouds.
Blessings as you enjoy your life!