Tuesday, August 25, 2009

- Cultural Attitudes About Life and Death

So of course, with everything that's going on, I've been pondering this whole subject of life. And I've been thinking: our North American, Western culture has a very interesting relationship with life and death.

On the one hand, we see all the ways people respond to someone who is dying or near death. This reaction is usually akin to some form of panic. Medical reality shows or miniseries like Gray's Anatomy or ER or House show the inner workings of a hospital. Staff working feverishly and intently on a person who comes into emergency in a near-death state.

Turmoil ensues as all kinds of orders are shouted out, medical professionals trip over each other in heroic efforts to keep the person alive; CPR is performed, paddles are brought out as the patient's chest is jolted again and again, as all the while, desperate family members cry and wring their hands in the background, hoping their loved one does not die.

And simultaneously, on just about every channel, every station, every network, every night, are the shows like CSI, CSI NY, CSI Miami, Law and Order, etc. etc. etc., showing the multitudes of ways a person can be murdered.

So to see the values of a nation, we can watch evening television programs . . . we can observe what exactly it is that normal, everyday people use to entertain themselves. Interesting.

One of the reasons I think I am so calm in the midst of all this uncertainty . . . cancer diagnosis . . . upcoming doctor's appointment . . . apartment rented & now unexpectedly having to move into a friend's place . . . dreams on hold . . . is that I honestly don't think physical death is the worst thing that can happen to a person.

I mean, it's not like I've been told I'm dying or anything, but it just makes me wonder what it is specifically that makes people absolutely panicked when they're given a cancer diagnosis.

I think it's partly tied into our cultural preoccupation with life and death . . . a cultural obsession to improve and prolong life, and an underlying fear and dread of the process of dying.

But I think the worst possible thing that can happen to any one of us is that we end up living a mediocre life. A life devoid of passion, or color, or excitement, or commitment to a dream. A boring existence.

So many people die before they ever stop breathing. Isn't that true?

Year after endless year where we live in quiet desperation, wondering why on earth we are here. Created to be passionate about something, but existing as if we have nothing to inspire us. Not to be overly dramatic, but that is truly my worst nightmare.

My physical health, while important, does not factor greatly in my daily thoughts. I'm much more concerned about my spiritual health, and about how I am going to spend my energies for things eternal.

I have always felt that if I could live to 50 without any major illnesses, I would be doing well.

And in the past few years, I have been thinking that every day / week / month / year I can live in health after 50 is a bonus, a privilege, a gift.

10 people from my graduating class of 1976 are no longer here with us. They died from an assortment of illnesses . . . accidents . . . overdoses . . .

There are 9 cases of cancer in my immediate family! 4 for my mother, 3 for my maternal aunt, 1 for my aunt's daughter (she's got terminal cancer), and 1 for my father. 4 of those cancers are cancers of the breast.

For me, health is a gift, not a right! Try telling your body you have a right to be healthy and it had just better be healthy NOW!!! Try that, and see who's boss!

While prayer, positive thinking and good diet may carry you a little ways, our bodies do not consider those elements to be the sole factors of health. In the end, it may just be a little more random than that.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived." Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)

And so I think I have my answer. As long as I can live passionately and intentionally and selflessly and wonderfully, I believe I will be walking the way God wants me to walk.

How long is that walk going to be? It's not at all in my control . . . that part is in His hands, and it will be very interesting to see what He has in store, just around the corner from here.


  1. Hi Wendy, I found out your diagnosis from my mom. I am so sorry. But you seem to be in good spirits and I hope things turn out for the best for you. Let me know if there's something I can do to help...

    BTW this part of your post really jumped out at me: "But I think the worst possible thing that can happen to any one of us is that we end up living a mediocre life. A life devoid of passion, or color, or excitement, or commitment to a dream. A boring existence." It was something I needed to read right now. Thanks and keep writing! :)

    Take care,


  2. Thanks, Chantal - we both know the power of the written word to challenge and to introduce change....