In my work as a physician who spends most of my time at the bedside of seriously ill or dying patients, I have had the opportunity to learn from the words and lives of many extraordinary individuals and their loved ones. The lessons to be learned from those facing the twilight of their earthly lives can cut through the clutter and confusion of life's "busyness" and underscore and clarify what really is true and most important about our lives in this world. Among the many life lessons I have learned in new ways from my patients are four I want to share here.
First, contrary to a number of modern, postmodern and existentialist philosophers and writers, our human life is NOT absurd, meaningless or random but full of meaning and significance. This is reflected in the richness of the stories and experiences shared by and about the person lying in the bed, the depth of the relationships with loved ones I see each day, and the tremendous loss, sadness and sense of tragedy that surrounds the ending of life.
Second, and related to the first, is the extraordinary uniqueness, value and worth that is intrinsic to each person going through life, illness and ultimately death. Regardless of appearance, deformity, power or dependence, wealth or poverty, each individual I am with reflects intrinsic dignity and is worthy of equal care and respect. This fact stands against the idea increasingly put forward by some in academia and the world of ethics that we can prioritize or rank the value of individuals by virtue of such criteria as productivity, intellect or functional state.
Third, in this meaningful life, each of us makes choices and decisions for which we are responsible, choices between right and wrong, good and bad, self interest and the good of others. Very often the experience of life-threatening illness or progressive disease causes deep reflection about our life and the choices we have made. I hear individuals sharing about actions and decisions that they are proud of, as well as regrets or sadness about past actions or choices that were wrong or hurtful to others.
Finally, I am reminded daily of the incredible power of love and forgiveness in even the worst of all circumstances. Even in families where there has been great hurt and sadness, the power of whispered "I am sorry," "I have done wrong; please forgive me." "I forgive you," and " I love you" can provide the basis for healing, restoration, and peace that transcends the death of the loved one.
As a Christian, I am struck by how the human lessons I see played out in the lives of the patients and their loved ones reflect the eternal truths of the faith. The great beauty and rich meaning of this life are a reflection of the Creator of all, and the dignity and worth that are intrinsic to each of us reflects the One in whose image we are made.
We are not the passive pawns of external forces, but make consequential moral decisions throughout our lives. We all of us do things that are wrong, selfish, or harm others, even the ones we love. Just as the "I'm sorry ... please forgive me" can provide for restoration and forgiveness with loved ones we have hurt or betrayed, so it is with our Creator God. This is the message that Jesus, the perfect reflection of our Lord and Creator, brought to us 2,000 years ago, and brings still.
Nesbitt is a medical doctor and directs Susquehanna Health's hospice services and palliative care.