The worse the situation, the more we yearn for a script to explain it all, and for the victim to find redemptive value in their ordeal. Dying or narrowly missing that status ranks right up there at the top for such a demand, and Los Angeles Journal columnist Meghan Daum writes that people want the poor suffering soul to be the star of the show. She should know, because she herself almost died from a disease and recovered virtually completely. The title of her article very clearly shows that she rejected such stardom: “I Nearly Died. So What?” (LA Times, November 14, 2014) She hated how a friend asked her if “surviving such a close call had made me think differently about life.” She scoffed at how people expect a spiritual or moral overhaul from such an experience. Just like me, Daum hates platitudes like nearly dying “puts things into perspective.” I’m with her. After all, the teaser for my own book says it is “unencumbered by religious agendas and pat answers.” (I actually had the gall to Tweet to her that we are thus kindred spirits.)
The columnist not only raises the question of why people react this way to people who might die or who surely will soon, but she also posits a motivation for such behavior: People above all want to find closure, to feel that the senselessness of disease does in the end make sense on some level. That is, we get to have the consolation prize of a spiritual revelation on account of dying soon or coming close to it, as part of our grand finale. Bottom line: The loved ones who are emerging unscathed (this time) want to comfort themselves by saying, there is a silver lining in there somewhere or other…Um isn’t there?” Daum does not buy it. She reminds us that crisis can “bring out the worst in people as well as the best.” I for one cannot deny that. I have experienced that firsthand as I imagine many of you have.
I agree with Daum that we might burden patients with demands that have far more to do with our own agendas and our own anxieties. I agree that fears about ourselves getting sick or not surviving getting sick can drive us to push ourselves away from reality via scripted explanations such as “God does not give us anything more than we can handle.” (Argh!)
But perhaps she and certainly I should look at such reactions with more forbearance. When death crouches by a loved one, nothing can make us feel more helpless and out of control. From sophisticated theology to folk theology such as the platitudes above, we are grasping at anything that can give us a sense of control. Wanting closure is our way of doing the impossible: of containing chaos within the confines of an orderly story that we tell ourselves.
You might protest that this does not address the burdens we are leaving at the feet of the patient. They do not deserve to have our anxieties displaced onto them. The fact is, Daum’s article and anything I or anyone else happens to say about this is not going to alter how we act in the future. As Daum herself said, she acted the same fool way when her mother was dying, hoping that her mother would bestow some special wisdom presumably available to her only at the end of life.
So what can be done? I think the answer lies in why else we seek revelation besides gaining control and controlling anxiety: we think that when people are close to death, they and thus the bystanders are getting an advance glimpse of what it is all about. (Some people have faulted me for misleading them into believing they would get such answers due to the subtitle of my book, i.e, What People Told Me Before They Died.) Thus we yearn for clues and wistfully hope to penetrate the ultimate mystery. I hope that when I am in dire straits and people ask me about my perspective on life, that I will see myself as their joint searcher as to what it was all about for me and for them. I hope that I will gracefully take on my role as the tenured partner in this search for meaning.