In the past week, two articles have given insights into how non-Christians face death, especially what thoughts they have as they look back on their past and look ahead to whatever may lie ahead.
The first one is Dr Oliver Sacks, a Jewish intellectual, a homosexual, at times an atheist and “a great chronicler of medical oddities.” His posthumous volume Gratitude, written in the last year of his life and published in November, contains four essays on the theme of “What comes next?” In A Good Doctor Dying a Good Death, Jeremy Lott selects poignant extracts that read like a hopeless version of Ecclesiastes.
When contemplating his 80th birthday in relatively good health, he said that he found it hard to take mortality too seriously:
“I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize that it is almost over.”
When he received his terminal diagnoses he wrote:
“It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.” He decided to take stock, to write, to travel, to spend time with friends and loved ones, and to tune out anything “inessential” including NewsHour, politics and global warming.
Toward the end of the book Sacks is “weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer” and still puzzling out “what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life.” His last words:
“I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
In this lengthy article, Harvard professor Steven Kelman, also Jewish, shares some of the lessons about how he navigated the ups and downs of a life-changing diagnosis. What surprised him most was that he did not fall apart in connection with his diagnosis or treatment.