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What people talk about before they die

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

A while back I came across an internet article by a hospice chaplain that was a perfect illustration of how theological immersion can lead one to miss some of the most obvious – and most valuable - lessons of life. It showed how those trained to see the world through a theological lens will project their god into every experience, their own and others’.

The article in question, by Kerry Egan, is “My Faith: What people talk about before they die,” which was published on the CNN religion blog in January of 2012.

Ms. Egan writes that when she was a divinity school student and student chaplain at a cancer hospital her professor asked her about her work. She said, “I talk to the patients.” He asked, "You talk to patients? And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?" Egan wrote that she hadn’t considered the question before. She answered, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?, he asked. “Umm, not usually.” “Or their religion?” “Not so much.” “The meaning of their lives?”

“Sometimes.” “And prayer? Do you lead them in prayer? Or ritual?” “Well,” she hesitated. “Sometimes. But not usually, not really.”

She wrote that she felt derision creeping into the professor's voice. “So you just visit people and talk about their families?” “Well, they talk. I mostly listen.” “Huh.” And the professor leaned back in his chair.

Egan relates, “A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor's packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.”

The professor said: “And I asked her, 'What exactly do you do as a chaplain?' And she replied, 'Well, I talk to people about their families.'” He paused for effect. “And that was this student's understanding of faith! That was as deep as this person's spiritual life went! Talking about other people's families!” The class laughed, and the professor went on: “And I thought to myself that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

Egan: “At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions. Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought. Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain. I visit people who are dying – in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes. And if you were to ask me the same question - What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain? – I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.”

Then, Ms. Egan got to what she thought to be the crux of the matter: “What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.”

I am a hospice chaplain. I visit people who are dying – in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes. And if you were to ask me the same question - What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain? – I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.”Did you get that? Talking about our families is how we talk about god , the meaning of our lives, and the big spiritual questions, she says. It seems that her patients think they are talking about their families, but what they’re really talking about is god stuff. So, she is basically saying that they don’t know what they are talking about.

This reminded me of my college days as an English major, listening to my professors go on and on about the symbolism of this passage or that. There was a lot of conjecture going around in these discussions. It seems to me that if the author didn’t say that that light being turned on was actually a flash of recognition of something, then maybe it wasn’t; maybe it was just a light being turned on. If the author doesn’t say it explicitly, then any talk of symbolism is mere conjecture. And if a dying person doesn’t say that talk of family is talk of god, then any other interpretation is also conjecture.

Perhaps I should not be surprised at Ms. Egan’s willingness to conjecture wildly on the meanings of god. At one point in her essay she writes, “If god is love, and we believe that to be true. . . “Clearly, she doesn’t even feel constrained by Biblical descriptions of god. Bible-god created a torture facility for those humans who don’t worship him properly, yet she calls god “love.” Bible-god once destroyed all of humanity except for one family in a great flood, yet she calls god “love.” When did love become a synonym for vengeful? This woman has decided she can think of and describe god any way she chooses, and she can decide that, whatever the topic of conversation, it’s really all about god. Her god obsession has completely unhinged her from the real world.

God is ultimately an abstraction, and Ms. Egan says as much. She tries to make the case that, when they are dying, “people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.” Well, clearly, atheists, who don’t believe in gods, would talk about the very same things and they are NOT talking about god or “the big spiritual questions of human existence.” It never seems to occur to her that maybe people talk about their families because that’s what’s really important in their lives, not god and not “big spiritual questions.” For all people, of all religions or none, their lives gain meaning from their families, their families are the context of their lives, so that’s what is most important to them. The truth was staring her in the face – what’s really most important to people – but she chose to see it, with her god-goggles, with a religious interpretation.

In the end we are all humanists. On our deathbeds, it’s the humans in our lives that matter most to us, not the abstractions of god and religion. This is the lesson of this chaplain’s hospice experiences. Ms. Egan missed the all important message of how we should live our lives, and, of course, what matters most in our final moments is what should matter most throughout our lives. What she should have learned from those deathbed conversations is that what will bring us peace in our final moments is not reflections on gods and religious ritual, but the knowledge that we treated those closest to us with love and understanding. In the end, if we wish to die in peace, our main purpose in life should be to help those we love to love us.


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