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John W. Travis, M.D. & Regina Sara Ryan
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Facing Death

Paradoxically, for those who seek to understand it, death is a highly creative force and a meaning-filled fact of life. The highest spiritual values of life can originate from the thought and study of death. But before we can use the confrontation with loss, separation, or death as a way of finding meaning, we must repudiate the connection between death and failure. We need to replace death within its rightful context if we are to use it to find meaning in life.

The culture in which we live has emphasized the prolonging of life - often supporting its quantity above its quality. A spiritual teacher recently humored his audience by telling them: Ladies and gentlemen, the point is not who lives the longest."

A cartoon in a major magazine depicted a hospital bed surrounded by monstrous electronic devices attached to a sad-faced patient. One weak arm emerged from under the covers holding a tiny white flag. The nurse, turning to the attending doctor, remarked - "Everything is working, doctor, but Mr. Jones doesn't want to cooperate."

Mr. Jones had had it! He was ready to give up, to surrender rather than to be subject to any more life-supporting technological "miracles." His response causes us to chuckle grimly because we relate to stories of people being kept alive at any cost. And cost it does!

Hospitals are established for the handling of disease and accident and trauma, for remediating conditions and then releasing patients once they can stand on their own. Doctors are committed to keeping us alive - as an inherent value. Consequently, when death occurs it means failure. It's that simple.

But death is not the ultimate enemy, the terminal disease to wage war against, to be eliminated at all costs. Nevertheless, this attitude subtly underlies so many approaches to health and wellbeing. As if by doing the right things - eating the proper foods, taking our exercise programs seriously, keeping infection at bay, improving surgical techniques - death, like the smallpox virus, could be wiped out.

We delude ourselves in believing that medical research will discover a cure for death. It's true that people who watch their diets, exercise, and enjoy satisfying relationships often do live longer. Nevertheless, we are all terminal, and death is our natural inheritance.

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