I’ve decided to move forward on getting a Master of Divinity, or MDiv.
A reason I’m working to become an independent chaplain to people who are dying, and to their families–an Advocate for the Spirit, I’ve sometimes thought would be a better name for what I want to do–is because our death is real, and the anticipation of our death is something I see shared by all people, in the world and also throughout time. I grew up in an extreme post-modern relativistic ’70s California, and I like things that I know are objective truths–they anchor me.
A second reason I was drawn to work in the Death Trade, as Stephen Jenkinson calls it, is because I’ve seen how we generally respond to our anticipated death. We–me very much included–spend an immense amount of subterranean energy throughout our lives, trying to avoid this universal truth of our death, and often people spend more and more of that energy the closer they get to their end. I watched my mother do this. It was because I hope I can free all this up well before my death, use that energy to live rather than try to not die, that I first came to hospice work, and it’s because I believe death denial is at the core of many global problems–and I am at heart, if not always in action, an activist–that I started this journey/new career.
But why become a chaplain? Is death work inherently spiritual work?
Let’s not wander too far into the quagmire of defining the word Spiritual, or its relation to psychology at this moment in history, but I will say they are related, because they both deal with what is non-physical in humans, but readily apparent. But spiritual work encompasses the physical as well, and death is immensely physical work. And spiritual encompasses our relationship with the world around us as well, with people, places, things. The beauty of the spiritual experience is that it is singularly flexible–it is a microscope that is infinitely particular, and a telescope that is infinitely broad. How far can you go?
It’s the rare person who, faced with their own death or that of someone they love, doesn’t ask, Why do we die? This question is really pretty easy to answer: Entropy. Our bodies wear out. But what people really seems to want to chew on at the end is Why did I live? Why is Person X, who gives meaning to my life, dying, or dead now?
Some of us have an answer to these questions ready, some of us don’t. Death and other crises are the great litmus tests of these answers, perhaps the way to test them for soundness. For some of us these answers are religious, communal. For some of us they are particular, something we’ve worked out ourselves. Some of us, faced with the end, find these answers work, some of us find they don’t, and we then have some limited time to review and revise them.
I’m going to tell you what seems to be the answer for many people to Why did I live? Why am I dying? If you’d rather not find out, don’t click here.
So why am I going for the MDIv? Will it really help me focus on how our death affects our lives? I am a Jew, religious, in my own way, but I don’t plan to just work with Jews, or just religious people.
This is what I’ve seen happen:
- A person recognizes the inevitability of their own death, sometimes just before their death, sometimes earlier.
- If they have no way to contextual their limited life, or they have a contextualization that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, people very often feel scared and immensely panicked.
- If they have their life and death in a context that works–have meaning–they very often are more resolved to the nature of their existence, i.e. mortality.
I said before that the question of Why did I live? can take on a lot of weight in the light of death. Working in the hospitals and doing an interfaith pastoral education these past nine months, our teachers taught us to offer comfort, sometimes, but more so to help people ask that question. Peoples’ answers are sometimes related to, or in response to, a religious tradition. These answers either work at the end, or the person will be existentially uncomfortable while they piece together their experience of life into an answer that does work. Some people find a way that works for them, some people don’t, and both ways are okay, but one is more peaceful, resolved, for the dying person and for their family. As a chaplain, it is my job description–unlike that of the nurse, or the doctor, or the physical therapist–to accompany people while they try to answer these questions.
Religion is the place and process that humans have gathered together throughout their existence to try to put together answers. Since it’s humans we’re talking about, some of those answers have been incredibly beautiful and some have been horrific. But I see religion as an electrical power line that runs throughout our species’ history–neither good nor bad, just incredibly powerful.
I’m going to go to look at that power, study it, and hopefully learn things that help me ask better questions, brush up closer to Truth, strengthen my ability to keep my heart open a little more, a little longer, and let the power run through it with less distortion.