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After a long battle with cancer

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 2 April 2012


That such and such a prominent person died after a "long battle with cancer" has become a journalistic cliché. We no longer succumb to the disease or stoically receive a bad diagnosis and set our affairs in order, we must do battle.

The last months, weeks, days of our lives are spent in warfare.

No mention is made of the work of preparing to die; the forgiving of old scores and final mending of fences and of telling our loved ones how important they have been for us. In short, we no longer face death as the inevitable final stage of life. We must do battle, we must "rage, rage, against the dying of the light." If we do not then we are letting the side down. For someone to accept a bad diagnosis and sing and dance to the final days is blasphemy because we all want to believe that death can be delayed forever. Giving in is not an option.

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Our dilemma is that we might be saved by medicine. If only we can find the right oncologist or surgeon or alternative quack we might not die. This is what tempts us into doing battle, the prospect of winning, even when we are assured that there is no hope of doing so. There are just enough and increasingly more remarkable remissions to keep this hope alive. This is what prevents us from dying well. Indeed, we cannot image that the last two words belong together. Death is the final enemy that must be vanquished at all costs. The costs to spirits, our bodies and the economy are becoming, as they say about everything today "unsustainable."

It has taken a long time for the myth of the afterlife to fade. I occasionally hear sentimental evocations of such a life as in "he has gone to a better place"; the ultimate denial of the goodness of this life we lead. Body/soul dualism, originally more Platonic than Christian, is on the wain under the pressure of the increasingly obvious connection between body and mind. Many of us do not believe that there is such a thing as a soul that continues and returns to its source after death. I cannot remember hearing a sermon in church that promotes such an idea, even at funerals. Rather, it is acknowledged that "the kingdom of God/heaven" is an earthly reality that is, according to the gospel of Mark, "among you." It is the whole world that awaits transformation into the peaceable kingdom rather than the individual finding a home in heaven.

The loss of heaven as a destiny of the dead has supported our lives, mistakenly, in my opinion, for a long, long time. Hope of heavenly rewards or fear of hellish punishment has been replaced by a kind of normal nihilism, a cynical hedonism. There used to be a time when such hopes and fears were a form of crowd control, no longer. Our behaviour is not conditioned by the hope of heaven and the fear of death. We are now out for what we can get. The loss of heaven means that death that has become personal annihilation and hence unthinkable, so we are bound to go to war.

It would seem that the faith no longer holds comfort for the dying or even those of us who contemplate our death. But what about all those biblical verses that proclaim otherwise, not the promise of heavenly afterlife, but that death has been put to death, that death is no more, that death has lost its sting? What about those saying of Jesus that promise eternal life for those who believe in Him? It cannot be that Jesus was the exemplar of good dying, a brave hero walking to Jerusalem for the final confrontation. His agony in the garden defeats this idea. Life was precious to him, he trembled at the thought of its loss. The most troubling thing for his disciples is that they are told to take up their cross and follow him. This seems a long way from the triumph of heaven. So what comfort is there in Christ in the face of death?

Death is certainly personal extinction, except for the memory of us that will too eventually fade. Death is the end of all human possibilities. But death is changed, even defeated, by the encounter with Christ. For it is in that encounter that we die, as is expressed so well in the baptismal liturgy. This is the death that leads to life, a life that exists in the face of death, cannot be overcome by death even though we die. This life is eternal not in the sense of eternal time but in the sense that it cannot be taken away even by death. It is the first death that forms our lives so that the second death that brings us to the grave does not dominate our lives. In an age of unrelenting rationalism we are uncomfortable with paradox but that is how the gospel comes to us. "Even though we die, yet we will live." Death has lost its dominion over us.

The long battle with cancer is the result of us not hearing this. We think that only one thing is important; survival. But there are worse things than dying. A life lived in fear of death is the life, if you can call it that, of the living dead. It is not stoicism that we must learn, it is that in Christ a light has come into the world that dispels the darkness of our lives and of death. This is a freedom that we cannot grasp for ourselves despite all of our human triumphalism. It stands in stark contrast to the fragile and fearful ways many of us live with an eye to the latest health news. There is the obedient acceptance that we must, one day, die and that this is fitting and right and that there is no horror in it. It is only when this happens that we can let go of the fevered and terrible grasp we have on being and when life is not reduced to warfare. That is freedom indeed.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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