A report from the Slow Lane
I have recently been focused upon happiness. I discovered the possibility that I could be happy, that I could be just myself, during a meeting with a group of elders. Since that time, I’ve been looking at my life, and trying to identify the chief obstacles to my happiness. This piece is about what appears to be my foremost obstacle, death. I identified my anxiety as a daily obstacle, and then fear of death when I examined my anxiety more closely. I gave myself a retreat for the holidays, felt the loneliness I’ve traditionally resisted, and came up with a gift I never imagined. I rediscovered dying, the nemesis of my happiness, as I kept lonely vigil over the holidays.
What I mean is that dying didn’t change, it is still an inscrutable mystery, a silent one-way passage, through which I know I will one day go. Instead something in me changed.
It started with the realization that I would be (have been) sorely disappointed if I let my fear of death keep me from being happy in this life. Having been surprised to discover the viability of genuine happiness, that what I thought was just an advertising slogan could be real in my life, I realized I was unlikely to truly be myself if I was not happy. I have been thinking about happiness, as a regular part of being myself, of actualizing Mystery’s creation, ever since.
So what has death got to do with happiness? Those two words, death and happiness, don’t often appear in the same sentence. What relationship do they have in my life? As I explained, happiness, for me, depended upon finding a new way to relate to the fact of my coming death. And that happened! In no way I could have expected, but death is suddenly another rite of passage that is going to deliver me to a new way of being. This is still scary but not as scary as it once was. Here’s what I discovered. Probably it won’t work for you, your freedom is your business afterall, but it might help you to know about it.
I noticed a pattern, that seemed to prevail in my life, and in the lives of the elders I find myself respecting the most. It has to do with diminishment. I wrote about it once, in one of my Slow Lane pieces, and it has stayed with me, as a compelling paradoxical mystery, that it seems to me, everybody should know about. You see the paradox is that diminishment, whether it be by hardship, loss, infirmity, bad luck, or old age, seems to lead (not in all cases) to a kind of enlargement. What I mean is that those who have suffered being made smaller and less capable by life, miraculously gained some new capabilities and perspective. Diminishment led to enlargement.
This pattern gives me a lot of reassurance. Not in some New-Agey way, because having to suffer the uncertainty and pain of diminishment is still in the picture, but because someone new, with a bigger picture, often emerges from the ashes. As Rumi says in one of his poems, after exploring his earlier lives as mineral, plant, and flesh, “when, by dying, have I ever been made smaller?” I see death as the great Diminisher, and as a result of noticing the reliability of this pattern, as the great Enlarger. Now my anxiety about death is greatly reduced.
That is not all, though it could have been enough. I also realized that if I put death in my right hand, and learning, growth and life in my left hand, I could enhance my life by merely shifting my attention to the left hand. It seems that if I look too intently at my right hand, at death, it fills my field of vision and becomes everything. I am dead before I die. If however I attend to the other hand, I’m not living in denial of death, it is right there with my other hand, I am instead actively involved with living, learning and growing.
Shifting my attention has never been easy. My fear and anxiety have too frequently determined where my attention goes, but one of the gifts of my stroke difficulty was I had to learn how to do just that. You see I had suffered such losses, of my marriage, family, home, health, and work that I was kind of mesmerized by them. I knew that in order to live, I had to shift my attention away from what I had lost, to what remained. It took a long time. I still have days when the losses overrun me. But, after a difficult time, I succeeded. It helped to discover that quite a lot remained. But I wouldn’t have made that discovery if I hadn’t shifted my attention. So, I know I can do it, because I had to do it, with the chips down, earlier to save my life.
I know I can do it again, that living fully, being true to myself, staying close to Mystery, being happy, matters enough to me, that the work involved with shifting my attention adds to the dignity of living as consciously as possible. I’ll probably fail often, but if I’m diligent, maybe I can move my default position of fear and anxiety toward happiness. Can you imagine that! At last I can.
Mary York says
Thank you for the thought provoking article. As I read your description of shifting your attention to a new way of relating to death, discovering a new way of being–I couldn’t help but think you have done the same for many by sharing this article. Thank you for your shifting our attentions to the positive surrounding end of life.
Hello, I am an AGNG 200 student at the Erickson School of Aging. Also, I am currently studying trends in aging and the last year of life. I started to read this article because its title attracted me so much. Thanks for giving a strong impression. I had a similar experience. I am pretty sure that all people might think about it at least once in their life. Since I lost my grandma, I had a hard time. The fear of death took hold of me for a long time. I could overcome with religion. It keeps me firm and strong. Most of all, once I realize death is a part of my life or anyone’s life. I could be myself again and decided to enjoy the rest of my life. Experiencing someone’s death is very sad but it makes me realize it is inevitable. Then, why do I have to be stuck in fear and anxiety? I will face the reality and fight! Or give thanks for all I have right now, being active for my life. I feel this article encourages people like me and gives turning point for people. Thanks for sharing your view on dying again!
Alexandra Hart says
I love these comments and the growth that seems to come more easily/readily as we age. Ripening turns into seed-making in the end…
Diane Hill Taylor says
I sincerely appreciated this beautifully written article. Thank you for so boldly sharing your views on dying and happiness! As you know, in the hospice community, this is very much part of the conversations with patients and families. For me, I hope to fully live with happiness until I die even as I may have to adjust HOW I live to align with changes over time, including but not limited to health changes. Quality of life-quality of care matters until the end!
For me this is a beautifully articulated piece on a stupendously important subject. Thank you. It reminds me of the saying I came up with about how I’m trying to live my life now, at 65 years of age and counting: I came into this life with nothing, and I’m trying now to get most of that back!
susan troccolo says
This is a marvelous article. Upon reading the article, I felt a tiny, “Yes, but” on my shoulder because I am one of those not afraid of dying, but sorely afraid of the suffering often surrounding it. I’ve had cancer twice with its attendant treatments and my husband has had a brain tumor, which results in difficult side effects. We are so happy every day, yet we still feel fear. I feel it more than he does. So what Mr. Goff has done in this article is address the HOW, the how we will overcome fear and anxiety. We will become more, laugh deeper, cry harder, tread gentler on the earth. This will give me something to think about as I continue to write my book on aging. Thank you, Mr. Goff. I needed to hear from someone who had experienced pain and suffering. It’ difficult for me to read about lightness and joy in aging from folks who haven’t known much pain or been present at the side of someone who is dying and in pain. But I hear YOU loud and clear. And I thank you.