Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Eleven Words

Desert Twilight

A few days ago, Krista Tippett featured one of the most amazing interviews I have ever heard on NPR. She was talking with Dr. Ira Byock, a nationally renowned physician in the area of palliative care and hospice. In the interview, Dr. Byock related his vast experience with people who were facing death. He spoke about "dying well;" however, I was really hearing him talking about "living well."

In the face of death, when all the veneer has been stripped away- all the strategies and goals and agendas of life are no longer important, all the pretenses and defenses crumble away, when you are at the door of death, and there is no way out of it, the only thing that ultimately matters to us are the people we love in our lives - it's all about relationships. 

For most people, as they stand at the threshold of death, there are really only four things they want to say before they die- four things consisting of eleven words.

Please forgive me
I forgive you
Thank you
I love you

In the interview, Dr. Byock gave the example of a person who may have just narrowly missed being killed in a car crash. After the brakes are slammed and your car is resting safely on the side of the road, and you realize that you have just barely dodged the bullet of death, the first thoughts that come to mind are not about that big project that you're working on, or about the career goals that you haven't yet achieved.  The thoughts at that moment aren't focused on how nice your house is or how much money you have in the bank. At that moment, you aren't about how you can get revenge on that guy who cheated you or maligned you.

No, at the moment when everything is stripped away and you are looking at death in the eye, you think about the people you love. You want to pick up your cell phone and call your wife or your child or your lover and seek forgiveness, express thanks and whisper words of love. You want to call and speak those eleven words that count in life. 

I remember the time, after the planes crashed into the twin towers on 9/11. Many documentaries featured the last moments on those planes about to crash, as passengers made tearful and heartfelt phone calls to their loved ones. They did not want to leave this life with those eleven words remaining unspoken. They had to speak those eleven words one last time:  "Thank you for being my wife," "Dad, sorry I was such an ungrateful son," "Honey, I just want you to know how much I love you."

I have spent the last few days reflecting on Dr. Byock's insight about facing death, and it has taught me so much about living life. 

Jesus taught that if you really want to find your "true self," you have to die to your selfish ego. The Buddha taught that the very idea of a separated, isolated self is a delusion- human beings ARE interconnected relationships with other beings. 

As I have reflected on the eleven words that matter- really matter in life, I am struck by the fact that there is not even a hint of "ego" in them. The eleven words are not about "me" - what I want for "me." These eleven words are all about my relationship to "you." These eleven core words teach me that, in the end, ultimately, human beings understand that the separated self is indeed a delusion and that we do find our true self when we scrape away the veneer and die to our pretentious ego. These eleven words show me that at our deepest core we, human beings, understand that we are relationships. 

Over the course of human history, philosophers and theologians, scientists and poets have written countless volumes and tomes exploring the "meaning of life." I actually think you can summarize it all in just eleven words:

Please forgive me
I forgive you
Thank you
I love you


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