We recently attended the local Norman-Rockwell-esque winter festival in our town. You know the one: kids sledding, hot chocolate, music, snow trail hikes. Additionally, the town set up a small skating rink where a number of children were testing out their skills. Never much of a skater before, I was happy to stand to the side and observe rather than participate. Watching these children repeatedly fall flat on the ice only to get up again and fall another few minutes later, I was amazed at their resilience, as they would continue on painlessly. I then thought about how my own body would handle those falls, and I could easily imagine how the slightest stumble would result in a week of back pain, Tylenol, bed rest, or worse. It was then that it began to dawn on me: getting old sucks.
I think about what I used to be able to do, how I could eat as much as I did, stay out late every night, participate in so many contact sports, whereas now I am full after a slice and a half of pizza, like to be in bed by 8 PM on a Saturday night, and am content with watching sports from afar. My body is just not able to handle what it used to. And I know that I’m not alone. I just read a thread of personal accounts the other day about people who injured themselves in situations that should not have resulted in injury. Whether it was the one guy who, right before jogging, slipped on a leaf and broke an arm, or the other gentleman who, when reaching into the sink to retrieve a fork, slipped a disc in his lower back, I found that I could identify with these people, as I’ve similarly injured myself in fairly innocuous ways: just ask my chiropractor.
I also write this as I watch my sixteen-year old elderly dog Elinor’s body steadily deteriorate with age. At this point, we’ve dealt with it for so long that it’s not sad or tragic, as she’s had a long life. It’s just that we can’t believe that her body hasn’t given up on her yet. I had always believed that I wanted to live to a ripe old age, but my dog’s physical state is seriously making me rethink that desire. With her arthritis, she can’t stand for long and can’t get up easily from a laying down position, instead flailing wildly to upright herself. She is mostly blind and deaf, so she walks into walls and doesn’t hear our warnings. In addition to her Alzheimer’s and/or dementia, we try to feed her as much as possible because her body has trouble keeping the weight on. To combat her ailments, she takes approximately $500 in pills every month. Whoever suggested that there is great dignity in death has never seen our dog.
Famous surgeon and Yale professor Sherwin B. Nuland, in his book “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter” wrote:
The belief in the probability of death with dignity is our, and society’s, attempt to deal with the reality of what is all too frequently a series of destructive events that involve by their very nature the disintegration of the dying person’s humanity. I have not often seen much dignity in the process by which we die.
Seeing firsthand a great deal of death, Nuland was quite the expert, and knew that the idea that we die with grace and honor was a mere fallacy, one that we like to believe is true of ourselves, but ultimately find out is quite the opposite. (Nuland himself died four years ago from prostate cancer.) The truth is our bodies are not built to last long or endure much. We are born to die.
The composer of Psalm 103.14-6 writes about how frail we truly are: “He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust. The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” We like to think that we are strong and will last forever, but we are really just dust in the wind. In addition to our belief in our own false immortality, we long to age gracefully and with great decorum, yet based on the Psalmist’s view and Nuland’s philosophy, that is not the case.
Yet, there must be a greater hope than what is being presented by both authors and my dog. What is really at root of our focused desire to live longer and die with great dignity is not a lack of hope in the permanence of life but instead a misguided focus on the source of our dignity. Dignity comes not in how we die but in how we live. Nuland goes on to say that, “when the human spirit departs, it takes with it the vital stuffing of life. Then, only the inanimate corpus remains, which is the least of all the things that make us human.” Our humanity lies not in the weak body we are so desperate to maintain but instead in the seeds we have sown throughout our life and the relationship we have cultivated with our God.
There is no honor in our decaying flesh but in the perfection in ourselves that comes from being baptized in the blood of His crucifixion, renewed daily through a prayerful request for humility regarding our humanity. There will never be dignity in death, but there can be dignity in who we are as a person, through our Christlike attitudes and Godly speech. It is inherent in our souls, not in our flesh. This week, instead of working hard to build and maintain dignity in your outward appearance, turn inward. Don’t let age and your body’s physicality define your dignity: find dignity in how you live. Develop a perfect humanity through a closer relationship with Him, crucifying the flesh and finding yourself blessed with a dignified soul. Amen.