No one can answer this question for another, of course, but we have much in common about the fundamentals of life and whatever answer we achieve will grow out of what we learn from one another. I have written in this spirit, drawing on what I have learned from others, especially in teaching philosophy, religion and psychology, working with those who are dying, bearing the loss of people I have cared deeply for, and centering my life in times with friends and family that have brought deep meaning, courage and delight.
Whatever flourishing we achieve will depend, in part, on fate--all the physical, social and psychological things that happen to us and that may work for us or against us. This is especially likely to be an important side of our final stage of life. Our well-being, though, will also be a matter of how we engage life. Some of this will be influenced by how we deal with whatever psychological problems life has brought, but this book focuses, rather, on the creative, life affirming uses to which we can put our basic human powers.
There are two fundamental perspectives --those we can think of as secular and transcendental--by which we in the West have been helped to experience this affirmative feeling for life. I explore both perspectives for the insights they have to offer and ask what it is about life, for all of us, that can make possible new meaning, greater intimacy, and deepened belief.
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Bringing Life to CompletionReflections On Living Deeply and Ending Life Well
By Edward Cell
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Edward Cell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Questions That Shake Us And Life's Power To Answer
What does it mean to end life well and how can we best manage it? The more I reflect on this, the more I believe it's really a question about what it means to live deeply. How we live and how we end life are intimately related. It's all one story, and running through it are deeply-seated questions about the meaning and value of our lives and also a quest to find answers for these questions in our experience, answers that enable us to affirm life with a whole heart and that can grow in power as we move through life's stages.
The things that bring life into question stir up strong emotions. At their starkest, these emotions include anxiousness about having to die, grief at the loss of those we care for, and heart-ache about ways we harm one another or grow apart. We may also be deeply troubled by feelings of doubt concerning direction and purpose for our lives, and of regret about ways we fall short of becoming the best we can be.
1. EMBRACING LIFE'S QUESTIONS
Whatever answers we experience as we face these questions will give rise to emotions that can also be intensely powerful. At their most compelling, these feelings include courage to embrace life in its entirety, gratitude for the bonds that unite us, and joy at the meaning that comes partly from our own doing and partly from beyond us. They are all complexly interrelated, but, as I have come to believe, the joy we find in a life of meaning is the foundation for the rest.
These answering experiences will work effectively for us only insofar as we have first really opened ourselves to the questions life brings and given them careful thought. Often these questions will concern our relations with the people in our lives. Why the times when we damage what is best about our life together? How deep is the understanding and care that connects us with each other? What do we count for—what kind of difference do we make—when things really matter and how much of this will continue into our final days?
Over time, if we think carefully about these things, a different kind of questioning may grow in us and we may come to ask something like this: does the meaning we create together sometimes bring a sense of life moving toward a kind of completion—a feeling that "Yes, it's really been worth while"? This can be in an important advance in our way of seeing things because we could not even ask about completion unless we were gaining some sense of what this might mean for our lives.
Still other questions may develop out of a larger perspective than that of thinking about our personal relations, one that concerns our relation with life itself. Does life make sense even though it ends in death and everything we value comes to an end? Why does life often bring so much suffering no matter how we strive to live it? What place do we have in the vastness of the universe?
Attending to these concerns is yet another way in which we may be led to take our questioning further and, in this case, ask whether we might come to see our lives as contributing to something profoundly great and good, something that we can draw on for an enduring courage and power of affirmation? This can be another important step forward because, here too, the very asking arises from an awareness of something stirring within us.
At some level, we face these questions in moments of decision about ourselves along the way and, in some form, they will rise again as a tide in our final days. They can be gift-bearing, if disturbing, guests because they can point the way to the answers we seek.
The answers we can come to experience will profoundly affect the quality of our living right up to the end. Attending to them, especially by reflecting on our life as a whole and on what we will want for our final days, can add depth to who we are and to our understanding of others. It can help us to complete our journey with meaning and gratitude and prepare us for being with others when they are dying.
2. MEANING THAT BRINGS AFFIRMATION
Especially as I have been with people as they face death, I have more and more come to think of finding a meaning for life as being able to affirm it all with a whole heart. We find this meaning—what I am referring to as life's answering power—in experiences that enable us to love and affirm ourselves, others, and life itself even though there are things about it all that we cannot love and affirm. The answers we come to, then, are not conclusions to careful analysis that bring an end to our doubt and questioning but experiences that change the way these things affect us.
We can find the key to such affirmation by reflecting on our concern to live a life that we feel is truly of worth. In this concern, we embrace something of fundamental importance to us: our need to create in ourselves and our world that which has enduring value. I propose that our most powerful feelings develop from the things that give life meaning because they arise out of a deep part of who we are. These feelings can come to us more closely than breath itself and as the heart of our affirmations. As we create things that matter, we form our best selves, bond with others, and touch something that lies deeper within us than our heartaches and our fear of death.
3. THE THINKING AND VALUING AT WORK IN OUR FEELINGS
Much of our discussion will be guided by two convictions about personal resources we can develop and learn to draw on that will help us experience the answers we seek and achieve a life of meaning. The first of these convictions concerns our emotions, a side of life that is not easily attended to because it has such an unruly nature. We doubtless all agree that we impoverish life if we live it with too little feeling, but feelings can also be so disrupting and dispiriting. On top of this, we can sometimes feel helpless to do much about this side of things. As important as our emotions are to making life worthwhile, it may seem that the best we can do is to keep the troublesome ones from affecting us too badly and be grateful that we have those that enrich and strengthen us. Certainly, at any given moment, our feelings are likely to come over us spontaneously and we may also find that we are somehow just predisposed toward some of them, as some people are, say, toward depression and others toward liveliness.
But what we are apt to overlook is the sense in which our emotions are not simply physical feelings—in the way that is largely true, say, of listlessness, or illness, or tiredness—but are feelings about things. This "about" means that mind is also involved in our emotions. When we have a feeling about something this includes having, first, a conception of that thing and, second, a sense of its value or disvalue. Thus, in our feeling of love for someone there resides an understanding of what a person is, what makes a person important, who that particular person is, and what we find loveable about them—things they say and do and, in an intimate relation, ways we find them physically attractive and desirable.
What this means is that our realistically positive emotions are not just momentary feelings that are pleasant to have but ways of engaging our world that bring an ongoing understanding of its personal significance for us and an appreciation of its value. We might think here of those people who have exceptionally rich, mature emotional lives and can be so impressive by the depth of the understanding and care they show for others and the skill with which they express their care.
That our emotions are formed by an often intricate interplay of thought and physical feeling also means that the more we bring to them some careful thought about the things we value, the greater is the understanding and appreciation of these things that they give us. Let's consider, first, how this kind of thoughtfulness can enrich particular aspects of our lives, such as the way we resonate to something truly fine about a person, or hear great music, or read insightful literature or scripture. We may well have discovered this in the way reading expert literary or other commentators can deepen our experience as we encounter the things they lead us to think about. This kind of thing might happen, for example, upon hearing or reading a description like this of the first movement of the symphony Kullerno by Jean Sibelius: "First, the strings strongly echo a phrase in the bases. Next the bases play it again, and the echo is less certain. Then the strings respond still more weakly to the phrase until nothing is left but a single note. The world in Sibelius is imposing but constantly on the verge of dissolving away." Reflecting on this can educate the feelings with which we hear this first movement so that we come to experience it, at some level, as an instance of our human questioning about life—a connection we otherwise might well have missed.
Let's think, too, of how this applies even to feelings about something that greatly transcends our immediate experience—aspects of the universe itself. Years of study, that tend to confront our physicists and biologists with incredible complexities and often bring great surprises, leave a number of them with feelings of awe, wonder, and even sacredness. Albert Einstein, for example, gave this expression to his feelings: "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."
Central to our concerns here is the possibility of bringing this kind of enriching thought to our feelings not only about the things and persons we value but also about life as a whole. For some, this is achieved by prayer or meditation, for others, by esthetic or ethical contemplation, and for still others by metaphysical or scientific reflection. These times of contemplation or reflection tend to lead us not off into unfeeling abstraction but rather into using the best of our everyday experiences to think about what life finally adds up to. We remain immersed in the everyday and yet also stand beyond it as we are "touched by something deeper" than the disappointment and suffering that are also part of it all.
This emphasis on the place of thinking and valuing in our emotions is not meant to downplay the importance for them of our physical feelings. Our physical energy and vitality play a key role in our sense of meaning, and our emotional lives develop not only by the thought that we give to things of personal importance but also by the quality of the physical activities we learn to engage in such as dance, sports, or sexual union. It will also be important to bear in mind what we will next consider about how the deeper levels of our mind contribute to some of our most important emotions. Often our emotions will carry meaning that takes us beyond what words can clearly say.
I am bringing these thoughts very early into our discussion because of the fundamental role that I believe our emotions play in our religious or otherwise holistic views of life. On one hand, if we have learned to regard the very nature of these feelings as merely subjective and ungrounded, they lose their power to become instruments of final meaning and courage. On the other hand, if we see how much the quality of these feelings depends on the responsibility we are taking for the care and openness with which we think about and act on things that bring meaning, their role in our lives will be more effective and reliable as it draws on the deeper parts of our nature.
4. A DEEP WELL-SPRING OF MEANING
The second conviction about how we can best draw on, and even develop, an important resource for the answers we seek is that making final sense of life, and of our personal relations, involves a great deal more than drawing on our conscious thoughts and perceptions. To be sure, our affirmative feelings about it all are nurtured, evaluated and shaped, in part, by our conscious mental activities. But they are also fed by a well-spring of meaning and motivation that lies deeper than our consciousness. As is true of our feelings generally, these affirmative feelings rest in large part on a long, complex history of experience, much of which works in us beyond our conscious awareness. I'm asking us to think of this as our deeper mind because it is key to what we'll be referring to as living deeply.
UNITING OUR CONSCIOUS AND SUBCONSCIOUS MINDS
One of the foremost difficulties in developing our power to create meaning comes from the fact that mind and consciousness are not the same thing. A great deal of how well our mind works for us depends on the effectiveness with which we keep the conscious and subconscious levels of our mind related to each other, but we are apt to rely largely on our conscious mind, giving it a privileged place that greatly overestimates the importance of its prudential powers of planning and control. The security seeking side of us wants to feel in control and any attention we give to the subconscious is likely to bring home to us how limited this control is. Visitations from the subconscious tend to introduce things that challenge something of our present way of organizing our thoughts and actions and thinking about ourselves.
Our deeper mind is, in one basic way, far more powerful than our higher, conscious one, namely, in the enormous amount of memory and information it stores and works with. From the observations that some of our scientists are making, Timothy Wilson, for example, reports that our subconsciousmindcantakein11millionbitsofinformationsimultaneously. This enables it to provide us with important help in determining our actions, understanding the past, and anticipating the future.
At the same time, this deeper mind also taps into our genetic nature and develops feelings that bring a deeper understanding of things fundamental to our sense of well-being. This enables it also to bring to our conscious experience feelings that are important to our deepest sense of flourishing.
Because we have no direct experience of our functioning at this deeper level, we can gain some understanding of this part of our mind only by attending to its effects on what we consciously experience. Freud famously taught us about our deeply seated impulses of lust and aggression. But of central importance to our quest for meaning is the creative role our subconscious also plays in our everyday activities. Let's consider two instances that illustrate these effects, one concerning the way we experience things that happen to us, the other the way we do our deepest thinking about our emotional lives.
We'll begin with an account by Marcel Proust of the emergence of some old, long forgotten feelings that played a key part in his ground-breaking work, Rememberance of Things Past. He recalls coming home one winter day when he was chilled and his mother offered him some tea and a Madeleine cookie:
I raised to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cookie. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me.... An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has. Whence could it have come to me, this all powerful joy? ...
And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of Madeleine [cookie] which aunt Leonie used to give me. Although I did not yet know why this memory made me so happy, immediately the old grey house rose up and with the house, the town, the streets upon which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.
In addition to the Madeline cookies of our lives—the particular things and places that have symbolic meaning for us—we might think of a book, a motion picture, a symphony, or a work of art, that has moved us deeply. And, most of all, of course, we could bring to mind the people who have touched us by their presence and wisdom.
Excerpted from Bringing Life to Completion by Edward Cell Copyright © 2012 by Edward Cell. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I. The Questions That Shake Us And Life's Power To Answer....................1
1. Embracing Life's Questions....................1
2. Meaning That Brings Affirmation....................3
3. The Thinking And Valuing At Work In Our Feelings....................3
4. A Deep Well-Spring Of Meaning....................6
5. More Than Belief Alone....................11
6. Not For Myself Only....................13
7. End Of Life Feelings Of Some Persons Who Are With Me Still....................14
8. Valuing And Transcending Our Separateness....................17
9. Two Ways To Seek Meaning And Affirmation....................18
10. Finding Meaning In An Ever-Changing World....................19
11. A Confidence About Our Final Days....................20
II. Engaging Life At Two Levels....................21
1. Our Everyday Self At Work....................21
2. Engaging Our Deeper Self....................24
3. Experiencing Transcendence....................25
4. Life's Final Chapter....................29
5. Living Defensively....................32
6. An Awakening Experience....................33
7. Loving Life In Its Mended Form....................37
8. The Complexity Of Life's Answers....................38
9. Being Connected In The Creation And Mending Of Meaning....................39
10. Meaning And Its Home In Our Language....................40
III. Two Horizons Of Ultimate Meaning....................49
1. Seeing Beauty As A Final Horizon Of Meaning....................50
2. Participating In Life's Eternal Meaning....................54
3. Narrative As The Foundation Of Meaning....................57
4. Narratives That Make Sense Of It All....................60
IV. The Wonder Of A Creative Universe....................65
1. A Scientific View Of Life's Creative Nature....................66
2. The Purposeful Work Going On Within Our Bodies....................67
3. Evolution And Society As Self-Organizing Processes....................68
4. Our Creativity In The Things That Matter....................68
5. Life's Creative Power In Our Final Days....................70
6. Wonder, Transcendence And The Sacred....................73
7. Wonder In Our Final Days....................78
V. Two Faces Of Death And Life's Power To Answer....................79
1. Estrangement From Others....................80
2. Estrangement From Ourselves....................85
3. Estrangement From Life....................86
4. A Way Up From Darkness....................87
5. Impermanence And Courage....................93
VI. Our Different Feelings About Life And Death....................97
1. Our Complex Being....................98
2. The Meaning That Death Has In Our Togetherness....................100
3. The Meaning Death Has In Our Separateness....................102
4. The Meaning That Death Has For Our Physical Self....................106
VII. Not By Or For Ourselves Alone....................111
1. Being Made Real In The Social Drama....................111
2. Creating Reflections On Life That Invite Final Connection With Others....................114
VIII. Reverence For Life....................121