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Using death to teach us about life

This quarter, I’m enrolled in “Dilemmas in Current Medical Practice,” a class that, against all odds, I can’t stop thinking about. The class is taught by Dr. Jeff Croke and Dr. Hank Jones, two doctors, each holding decades of experience, who work at a clinic just across El Camino Real. Through treating patients, including many in their ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, they have seen it all. They ask the tough questions, map patients’ end-of-life plans and are beside these men and women in their final days.

Dr. Jones led the seminar in Week 5, focusing on the state of dying in America today. He posits that too often, death takes us by surprise. Life is fragile, and the idea of dying too difficult and complicated to think long enough about it before it whooshes us away. The only thing we can do is plan and take ownership over our end.

That depressing declaration left me searching for any positive in a sea of negatives. After some thought, I think I’ve found a positive on thinking about death. Just as planning for death allows families and to take back control of the final days, acknowledging that life is short and we have only have one run gives us stronger control and freedom over how we will live. So, at the risk of coming off as an ass, I’m going to ask one loaded question — not to be somber but rather because I believe the implications are vital.

Here it is: Why don’t we talk about death? The questions around end of life include some of the most important questions in our world, yet we rarely take the time to educate ourselves about this. Do we not discuss because we are scared? Because the very word death is taboo? Or do we remain silent because of what thinking about death might reveal about us and the way we live? I won’t be so presumptuous and crass as to intuit why we don’t talk about death that much on campus. All of these reasons may play a role in it, but I ultimately think, unless prompted, we don’t talk about death all that much because we are willingly, and often unwillingly, ignorant of it.

I find Stanford analogous to Disneyland. It is a literal eternal embodiment of the fountain of youth, where some of the brightest minds enter each year with more and more youthful energy, vitality, athletic and academic prowess. We are influenced by a Silicon Valley and Design School that focus on the here and now, and focus more on building at the expense of reflection. In our busyness, we are distracted by what’s really important.

But, I’m going to offer one alternative, as crazy as it sounds. Let’s embrace the idea of death. Let’s embrace the fact that life is fragile. That our loved ones will pass away. And regardless of religious belief, that we are designed to have a beginning and an end on this planet. Embracing death allows us to take on a new perspective, to put on a new pair of shoes. In the presence of the fleeting nature of life, we are pushed to own the time we have and create our priorities. Accepting life’s fragility, we are pushed to make something of ourselves. And ultimately, I would argue that we are pushed to be more service oriented, and more empathetic people.

At the end of the day, regardless of our religious beliefs, we can’t take the money we earn or our material possessions with us after death. So then what really is important? Understanding that death is imminent allows us to recreate our value system, and to live radically. I came to the realization that, so long as I can leave with a sense that I made the life of the brother or sister to the right of me better, and so long as I will have given and experienced true love and belonging, I will be happy. I will have left a legacy. I recognize how broad that last sentence is, and that I am writing to a diverse crowd. However, at the deathbed, doctors repeatedly hear the same regrets and reflections. They often revolve around either wishing they had worked less, connected with people more, or lived out their dreams rather than other people’s or society’s impulses. And, while I may have just been complaining about a lack of empathizing and embracing this concept of death, the opportunities are all around us to do this, from Camp Kesem and volunteering at a nursing home, VA, or hospital, to talking to friends and family about these issues.

Over the next few weeks, try this. Imagine your life will come to an end soon. What are the real things you want to leave knowing that you did or experienced? What are your true values and goals? And, in this short life of ours, as the Stanford admissions essay goes, what matters to you and why?

Kyle ’18 would like to thank Dr. Croke, Dr. Jones, Nick Kraus ’18, and Camp Kesem for insight and inspiration. He also admires the 42 brave souls who took his first column’s challenge.

 

Contact Kyle D’Souza at kvdsouza ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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