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Wisdom from the dying! Does the proximity of death make us wiser?

By Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD
 
Pic: The Death of Socrates by French painter Jacques-Louis David in 1787

There is something about death that fascinates, intrigues, and horrifies- all at the same time. How to live and how to die- these have been the perennial questions which mankind has pondered since the dawn of time. These are the oldest questions, and every now and then, we hear fresh answers and perspectives. No matter how many versions we have, there is always a hunger to nail down the essence of life in simple concrete steps. Although life still remains an enigma, the search goes on.
People have always been curious with death, and those who are dead. For time immemorial, people have been trying to communicate with the dead and the spirits. Many go to the psychics, use Ouija boards and Planchette, and look for the crystal ball. Life would become simpler (or complex!) if the dead could directly speak to use like Hamlet heard from the ghost of his father. But apart from fiction, the dead don't speak. Since the dead cannot come back and tell us what to do, the closest we can get is listening to people on the cusp of death. Does the dying hold the keys to life? Words from a dying mouth draw the attention of people. Books and memoirs authored by dying people or based on the message of the dying people have gained wide acceptance. A number of bestselling books on dying suggest that. I will discuss a few notable examples here.

 

When one is near death, it gives the person a certain ethos and certain honesty. It opens up people's heart and mind to what he/she has to say. This happened to Professor Randy Pausch who was asked to give the "final talk "at Carnegie Mellon on September 18, 2007. This talk is a part of lecture series where top academics give a hypothetical "final talk", about what matters to them and what wisdom would they give the world if they knew it was their last chance?" Pausch was diagnosed with a terminal pancreatic cancer one month before the talk, and thus his metaphorical final talk literally became his FINAL TALK. Pausch called it the "Last Lecture", titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams". He spoke to a large crowd of over 400 colleagues and students. The lecture was an instant hit, and became a viral on you tube and, has been watched by millions of people. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo
The success of the talk led to the book "The last lecture "which has remained a best seller for 112 weeks and was translated into 48 languages.






Newspaper sports columnist Mitch Albom saw his old sociology professor after 16 years. His professor was 78 years old Morrie Schwartz who was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He travelled from Michigan to Massachusetts to see the professor every Tuesdays in those last days of Professors' life. Albom penned down a book based the 14 visits called "Tuesdays with Morrie". The book became a bestseller making both Morrie and Albom household names. It was also made into a successful movie and TV show.



In recent times, another book about the last days of life called "When Breath Becomes Air" is topping the New-York time's bestseller list. This book is unique as it provides a doctor's perspective from being a terminal patient. It accounts the life and illness of 37 year old neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi who battled stage 4 metastatic cancer with grace and poise. The book was published after his death and has been gaining acclaim each passing day.

Thus we see numerous instances when good people became great through their deeds and words at the time of death. How is it that regular people leading regular lives gain extraordinary insights at the foreknowledge of their death? Generally, since old times -it is believed that a dying man always tells the truth. Death is a definite and concrete reality. It cannot be hidden by plastic surgery or masked with ornate language or material. It is a one way track and the definite truth. There are no retakes, nor second chances. No apology, no sorry, no atonement can alter the course. All our life we fight for survival. We have to arrange for food, shelter, mate, company and cater to the basic needs of life. All of us want to be ourselves. But except for a few headstrong or powerful, all have to bend to the ways of society. We have to be careful in revealing our true selves, as we may upset the powerful and important ones in our lives who can then withhold their resources, or even love which we value for survival.
But everyone knows that all this will end eventually. We all will die one day. Well, dying in next year and dying in next few decades is a different ball game. Proximity to death makes us free. As one cease to fight for survival, the true self can emerge out of fear or ridicule. This may explain how wise words flow seamlessly from so many dying minds. The audience at the receiving end also knows the fact and is more open and trusting to the message. A dying person gains instant credibility as he/she has so little to gain. If someone has few months to live they have much less to gain by deceit or bullshit. It will be in their own interest to leave a legacy of goodwill based on truth and trust. The wisdom they impart will endure their memories even after they are gone. Lincoln, Gandhi, King are all dead, but hardly a day passes without their mention in people's mind or media.



But they were the great people, an inspiration to all. What about ordinary folks. Do they have something to teach before they die? Luckily, we have an answer. An Australian nurse working in palliative care cared for the patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She started recording their thoughts in those last days. Her name is Bronnie Ware. She asked dying people about their regrets and what they would have done differently. She noted the common themes that emerged again and again from people of different background. She wrote a book titled – "Top Five Regrets of the Dying". The book became a bestseller and its lessons echoed through the hearts of million readers. She found that dying people regretted the most was "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me".
It seems so many of us live to please others. We live and work to make money to buy things we may not need, but to please and impress others. This ‘keeping up with the Jones' mentality is robbing us of our happiness. I am not sure if the real or imaginary Jones were happy either? Many of us work too hard, and spend less time with family and friends. Many are repressing their true feelings out of fear or other compulsions, and not being honest to one's true self. In end, when all is said and done, we are left alone and we part the world alone as we have come alone. This perennial wisdom has been the core of all religious beliefs, yet we forget this when we live, only to remember when we leave. For many it may be too late, but rest, we can still learn how to live from the dying. Dying men are indeed wise and they live through their advice. They teach us how to live free, and die happy.







 
Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD, ABIHM, ABPN, is an American Board certified - Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychiatrist. He is a diplomate of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine. He holds adjunct faculty position at Emory University School of Medicine; University of Georgia & Georgia Regents University, and University of Central Florida School of Medicine. He is a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. He is a freelance writer who lives in Atlanta.


 




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