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Dying

By Michael Sharp, MD

When I am afraid, my capacity to connect to someone I trust and love is diminished—if not totally extinguished. The thing I need the most is the most difficult thing for me to access.

Michael Sharp, MD

This is a pattern I see in myself and in others I work and play with. If I had a genie and he gave me one wish, it would be that this wasn’t so. I feel that my work these days, with self and others, is to find a way to soften my aversion to connection when I need it most. In a recent column I explored the nature of love as the process of patiently being curious with the internal and external voices that express alarm. If I can patiently explore their origins, there’s a good chance I can find deep understanding and respect for the ways these are trying to protect me. Then compassion seems to naturally arise, even for the ones that feel least friendly. So that is what I try to do with my fears, love them in this specific way. 

One important step that helps make this possible is recognizing that fear is only a part of me. This first step alone is difficult, since alarm bells—instantaneous reactions to what my system considers threatening—activate such a powerful somatic and often irrational total body response. The release of stress hormones involved triggers a primal survival reaction that takes precedence over every other option for being at that moment. Discouragingly, the more frequent the triggers of alarm, the more my system is tuned to “existential threat monitoring.”

Recognizing this pattern when it is happening is a good first step and intervening as early as possible when life’s challenges begin to build up makes the repair moves easier. It is easier to talk about my fears when they are new and little, than when they have become global. Yet global fears are present. Here is where the serenity prayer—“grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”—is especially useful. Please. Pretty please. If I can access that strategy, a whole huge category of fears can be ushered out the back door. 

The crucial step in addressing my more personal fears—patient curiosity—is best done with another. But . . . dilemma! (see the first line of this column). So, the reasons I least want to talk about my fears with others needs my first attention. I think it is almost always embedded in a fear that exploring my fears is likely to reveal some kind of personal fault or character defect. Let’s not go exploring areas where there may be quicksand! So I turn away. Prayer for grace and openness, self-acceptance, turning towards the fear, looking it in the face, asking it why it is present, maybe I am imperfect. Can I accept a level of inadequacy in myself? Scary but human. The first step to “get real”?

Kathleen and I just listened to a podcast of an interview with Terry Patten, called Facing Death: A Call to “Get Real”: The Importance of Being Kind and Waking up to the Miracle of Existence. This interview was recorded several weeks prior to his death.

At the time of the interview, he was completely aware of the direness of his medical condition and was able to be present with all of the cascade of complex, dark thoughts and feelings attendant with his imminent mortality. He didn’t run or rationalize or deny any of them. This capacity to be curious, to “look them in the face,” seems to have been the reason he could let them pass through him and leave him in a place where he could be present with everything else—to himself, to the interviewers, and to his every breath. 

So, I’ve reached the understanding that the somatic experience of my fears are really warnings of fear of death, and these need to be accepted and “withed.” Terry proves that is possible in the most dramatic way I can imagine possible and that is what I seem to need—this most extreme example to make my own (comparably little) fears seem tolerable, bearable, withable. I can ask myself the question, what would I do if (substitute any grave fear) happened? I would be present. I would be with: with curiosity, with understanding, with compassion. Kindness. Even if I were dying. Terry makes that implausible possibility plausible. I recommend it to you.

To your health (and longevity!)