Saturday, October 18, 2014

Writing the Last Chapter of Your Life

[This post is a reflection that I gave at my Men's Group--Brothers on the Journey--at All Saints Church. I am deeply grateful to the men in this group for inspiring me to be more open and honest about my personal life, and to go deeper into my spiritual life.]

At age 65, it’s not unusual to think about the final chapter of one’s life. A retired pastor named  Bill told my men's group last week that he feels his life has consisted of three books—his life before his first marriage, his life during his first marriage, and his life during his second marriage. Since his wife has Alzheimer's and is not expected to live very much longer, he feels he is now approaching the end of his third book, and wonders if there will be another. I wondered the same thing five years ago when my wife Kathleen of blessed memory died of cancer.  We had made many beautiful plans to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary in the Quaker center where we met and fell in love, but God had other plans. We never know when one chapter will end, and if another chapter will begin.

I just received a tap card for seniors recently, and it said, or seemed to say: “Card holder expires June 6, 2024.” Actually it said that the card expires in 2024. But I couldn’t help wondering: will I outlast my tap card? I checked online and discovered that white men my age usually live to be around 80. That’s fifteen years from now. But of course I could be diagnosed with a fatal illness tomorrow and discover I have only a few months or weeks in which to write my last chapter.

I have good health and don’t feel old. Emotionally, I feel I am around 30 and look forward to a new life with my new wife Jill, who keeps me young. Yet I can’t help thinking about my life’s final chapter. When it comes to my life story, I don’t feel I am in complete control of the writing process. When I wrote a novel a few years ago, it seemed as if the characters in the novel had a life of their own and pretty much dictated what I wrote about them. This is how I feel about my life story. I am writing it, as best I can, but ultimately, it is being written by an Author much greater than myself. As a Christian, I believe I am not really the author, but the co-author of my life.
The psychologist Carl Jung believed that God writes our life story through dreams and archetypes, bringing to light the hidden parts of ourselves, the shadow side we often try to suppress. What we know and acknowledge about ourselves is only a small part of who we are. The inner journey is what helps us to know ourselves as whole people, not simply as holy people. As the Apostle Paul said, “Now we know through a dark mirror, but someday we will know face-to-face.” Knowing ourselves face-to-face can be very scary, and may take heroic effort, but it’s worth it. The more we truly know ourselves, the more we are able to love and live life fully.
I first started to think about the last chapter of my life in my late thirties when I faced a very serious career challenge. I needed to decide whether or not to become a youth director for the Quakers. I agonized and prayed about this decision, and found some help in a book by Stephen Covey called 7 Habits of Effective People.  One of my favorite parts of the book was called “Start with the end in mind.” He recommended that we write a mission statement for our lives. He also recommended that we imagine our own funeral and what is being said about us. He then went on to say that we should determine what it is we want people to say about us and begin living that way.
What do you want people to say about you when you die? That your mission was accomplished, that you were successful? Witty? Loving? Concerned about your family and friends? An avid golfer, fisherman, stamp collector, rock n roll fan, beer aficionado. Eager to save the world, promote peace? That you loved beauty, or God forbid, money?
Kathleen wearing a head scarf
given to her by a Muslim friend
during her cancer journey
When my wife Kathleen of blessed memory was diagnosed with cancer at age 57, one of the first things she did was to plan her memorial service. She wanted to live, and did everything she could to battle her cancer, but she also calmly prepared for her death. She signed a health directive making it clear when she wanted to be taken off life support. She reviewed her will. She wrote an autobiography to be read at her funeral. She chose the hymns, and even the pastor. She gave very specific instructions that helped to take many of the practical burdens off me when she passed. She even confided to a friend that she thought it would be a good idea for me to remarry after her death. She thought of everything! My wife taught me how to live like Christian, how to love like a Christian, and how to face life-threatening illness and death like a Christian. The final chapter of her life was in many ways the most beautiful and edifying.
My wife Kathleen was a Methodist pastor who had counseled many people who were on the verge of dying. She understood that for a Christian, dying is an opportunity to witness to our faith. This she did beautifully.
When I was in my thirties, and decided to become a Quaker, one of the reasons I chose this faith was because I admired Quaker elders. They seemed so cool—so full of life, so involved in good causes, and such good listeners. They became my role models. I wanted to be like them when I became old. Now I am now their age, I am grateful for all they taught me.
Among my Quaker mentors were a couple named Joe and Teresina Havens. Terry was a teacher of religion with the Ph.D. from Yale. Joe was a peace activist and a psychologist. After retirement, he and his wife started a retreat center near Amherst called Temenos. There they lived their Quaker faith by living simple lives and organizing workshops.
Teresina and Joe (the elderly couple in white in the middle)
 leading a sacred dance at Temenos
I loved Joe and his wife Terry. They were such amazing people. When I googled them, I found this picture of a sacred dance they are leading at Temenos. The spirit of the 60s lived on in this joyful, thoughtful, deeply spiritual couple!
When Terry died of cancer, Joe was suffering from Parkinson’s and he made a decision to die consciously. He didn’t take any drugs. He simply stopped eating. He said, “Many people in the world don’t have enough to eat and I have lived a full life and am willing to die.” During his final fast, he was surrounded with friends and family and he witnessed to his Buddhist Quaker faith by showing compassion and concern for all.
This led me to explore the practice of conscious dying, another way of saying: to die like a Christian, or like a Quaker. What would it look like to die as a Christian? In the past Quakers and others saw dying as an opportunity to leave behind a final message, one’s last statement of faith. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, said: “All is well. The Seed of God reigns over all, and over death itself…” The final words of Timothy Leary, who decided to die consciously and publicly, were also memorable and true to the man he was: “Why not? Why not? Why not?”
There is a group called “Compassion and Choice” which is lobbying to provide people the opportunity to die with dignity, that is, to take medications to end their lives when it seems like life has become unendurably painful. My friend Ignacio Castuela, a Methodist pastor, is part of this group and was recently quoted in a column by Steve Lopez. Ignacio said he became an advocate for death with dignity decades ago when he was a pastor in Hollywood during the AIDS epidemic. “I was given the rare honor of being present when people made decisions to not go the way of their friends who had horrible deaths.” Instead, some held farewell parties in which their lives and values were celebrated.
I personally am not comfortable with the idea of taking active steps to end one’s life, but I respect those who make that decision if they follow their conscience in doing so. I firmly believe that people should have the opportunity to die with dignity, as God intended. When my mother had cancer and was given only days to live, the doctor asked me if I wanted him to use “heroic measures” to prolong my mother’s life a few days or weeks. I said no. As a result, I had the rare honor of being present as my mother died. It was a beautiful experience to be there as her spirit left her body and filled the room with light and love. I am grateful that my mother died with dignity.
Another person who helped me think about the last chapter of
my life was my role model and mentor Gene Hoffman. I began writing her biography 13 years ago, when I was 52 years old and she was pushing 80.
Gene was not only an activist and actress most of her life, she was also a mother who raised 6 kids. In the 1960s, she was acting in and directing plays. She was active in the anti-war movement. She started a counseling center. And then her life fell apart. Her husband left her. One of her sons was arrested on a drug charge. Her mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. And Gene had a nervous breakdown. She was 50 years old.
This became the turning point in her life. She spent three weeks in a mental institution and wrote a powerful book about her experience called "Inside the Glass Doors." She went to Pendle Hill, the Quaker center, where I met my wife Kathleen, and spent a year on a spiritual retreat. She traveled around the world to learn what people were doing to promote peace. She got a degree in pastoral counseling. And her whole attitude towards peace activism changed. She became aware of her inner conflicts and feelings, and helped activists to become aware of their inner struggles. She started a program called Compassionate Listening that influenced a Jewish woman named Leah Green to start an organization by the same name. Using Gene’s techniques, Leah Green taught Israelis and Palestinians how to hear each other stories and build trust and understanding. I took part in a Compassionate Listening delegation that went to Israel/Palestine in 2004 and it was a life-changing experience.
What inspired me about Gene was her enthusiasm for life, which never left her as she aged. At 80 she was still eager to listen and learn. Whenever I visited her, she would pepper me with questions. She wanted to know what I thought, what I felt, what mattered to me. She made me, and everything around her, feel important and loved. One of the last article she wrote was called “Aging: A Time of New Possibilities.” I’d like to share Gene’s final words:

I began to wonder what an elder was supposed to do. Visit friends and family? Read novels? Write my memoirs? A little of each is great—but that didn’t feel quite right to me. I began to explore being an elder…
I suddenly flashed on a question Jack Kornfield, Buddhist sage, had asked on one of his tapes. He said, more or less, “At the end of your life the only question worth asking is, “Did I love enough?” My internal answer was, “Of course I haven’t, and perhaps I never will. But I can begin trying. Whatever happens, it will keep me well occupied for the rest of my life.”
I have six grandchildren. I began looking at the ways I loved them. I felt I could love them better, and discovered my first step is to “let them be,” to accept them as they are, and with gratitude.
Another thing I’ve learned recently is that if someone offends or hurts me, I don’t need to make a scene. I’ve long thought violence springs from unhealed wounds. If I’m really trying to be a loving presence in others’ lives, and I can remember Laura Huxley’s phrase, ‘You are not the target,’ I’ll be healing myself and something may spill over.

Life is full of not-knowing-how-to-love and finding new ways to act, to be, to respond, to live. Since I think this may take several lifetimes, I can’t waste any more time. The assignment is before me: I’m here to focus on being a warm, loving human being…”

A couple of years after writing these words, Gene came down with Alzheimer’s and was placed in an Alzheimer’s facility. I visited her whenever I had a chance. Over the next few years I watched her mind slowly disintegrate. She lost the ability to remember and to speak but not the ability to love. Whenever I came to visit her in her last days, she would smile and I would take her hands and look into her beautiful blue eyes and tell her how much I loved her. We didn’t need words. Those moments were pure love.
What are my plans for the last chapter of my life? I plan to continue to live pretty much as I am living now. I plan to work for peace—both inner peace and peace in the world. I plan to enjoy my marriage to Jill and love her with all my heart. I plan to work for justice and to be concerned about the “least of my brothers and sisters.” I plan to do the inner work necessary to become a whole person, to learn how to love and live life fully. I plan to travel and see as much as the outer world as I can, as long as it doesn’t distract me from exploring the inner world, which is just as important. I plan to have fun, and enjoy life’s innocent pleasures—gardening, dancing, books, music, and silly jokes. When I die, I hope people who knew me will say: Anthony was a good friend. I hope that those who are hurting and homeless will say: Anthony was our friend. I cherish the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John, which is the basis of my Quaker faith: “If you love, you are not my students or servants. You are my friend.” Those are the words I’d like the final chapter of my life to embody.

Questions and quote to ponder:

  1. What would you like people to say about you at your memorial service?
  2. If you were to die tomorrow, what would you regret not having accomplished?
  3. If you had to give your life story a title, what would it be? What would be the title of the final chapter or your life?
  4. What qualities do you admire, and/or aspire to, in people who you consider elderly? What kind of elders influenced your life? How might you emulate them in some way?
  5. What is the heritage you are passing on to your children and to humanity by way of a story?

"What is the greatest heritage we can leave? It is something that anyone can accomplish, regardless of wealth, power or education. This heritage is a story. A beautiful, inspiring story. The story of one's life, starting with some difficulty or hardship, recounting the pains and struggles, and ending with the conquest of the problem through belief, confidence and religion." – Chai Kyu-Cher, a Korean Quaker whose face was horribly disfigured in a car accident. He suffered horribly and his life nearly fell apart. Yet he was able to transform this tragic disfigurement into a "legacy," a gift he shares with audiences throughout Korea and the world, inspiring them to see their challenges in a new light. See:

1 comment:

  1. Anthony, Thanks for posting this thoughtful reflection. It's been helpful today for me in my own aging and the troubles we are having here.