A Different Sort of End of Life Conversation

 

The season of Lent gives us the opportunity contemplate the suffering and death of Christ, that sacrifice of Himself that opened us to new life in His Resurrection. Today we begin a three-part Lenten series in which we will reflect upon the Mystery of Death by contemplating our mortality, read through the life, death and resurrection of our Savior. 

 

End of life conversations often gravitate toward the aspects of death and dying that frighten us: fear of the unknown, vulnerability to physical suffering, feelings of abandonment, burdens of care, concern for friends and family, division of property and family squabbling, and broken, unreconciled relationships. There is a vexing debate today about physician assisted suicide and euthanasia in order to eliminate unbearable suffering or over treatment or to avoid ongoing medical expenses.

It is spiritually ennobling to lay aside those fears at times  and speak about the end of a life well lived. That conversation shifts our focus from realities that frighten us to those that build confidence.

On February 17, Catholic author Michael Novak died at the age of 83, and many friends and colleagues offered remembrances following his death. (My own appears among several others here. Two other exceptionally good ones are here and here.) Those remembrances offer the portrait of a man who strove earnestly to understand the thinking, problems, and possibilities of our age, who developed friendships across political and cultural divides, and who advanced a practical, well-argued vision of a viable, humane, free society.

Famously, Novak thought his way from a politically liberal youthful idealism to a moderate conservatism through a careful study of how economic, political, and cultural systems actually work. This study crystallized in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in which he showed how communism demolishes the human creativity, spirit of innovation, and development of virtue that drives social life and would ultimately fail for that reason in addition to its flawed economics. He showed that democratic capitalism develops those same human abilities and has the possibility, though not the assurance, of success. After Spirit, he continued to think about how different aspects of social life, especially religion, foster a cultural, political and economic order that gives play to the human hunger for liberty.

I worked as a research assistant for Novak from 2001-2004, and as I read those remembrances, I recognized many of the stories and characteristics.  Yet in their reading, I realized that I came to know the man much better at his death than I did during his life. My thoughts naturally turned to the lessons people drew from the way he lived, especially his generosity with time and attention to others, his respect for those with whom he disagreed, his immovable fidelity to the truths that he had understood, and his willingness to concede his errors.

The end of Michael Novak’s life brought an end of life conversation, but not the sort we typically mean by end of life conversation. During his last weeks, there was the typical worrying over medical treatment, hospitalization, and his family. But there was also a conversation about the lessons of Michael Novak’s life, prepared to confront those final difficulties by confronting many others before, to build something worthwhile for his society. It is not a conversation reserved to well-known public figures, but one that profitably happens, albeit on a smaller scale, within our own families and circles of friends.

Grattan Brown teaches Ministry to the Aging, Sick, and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

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